Authors: Gregory Maguire
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Fantasy, #Fairy Tales; Folklore & Mythology
It would take Dorothy Gale and her relatives three days to reach the mountains by train from Kansas, the conductor told them.
No matter what the schoolteacher had said about Galileo, Copernicus, and those other spoilsports, any cockamamie theory that the world was round remained refuted by the geometrical instrument of a rattling train applied to the spare facts of a prairie. Dorothy watched eagles and hawks careering too high to cast shadows, she watched the returning larks and bluebirds, and she wondered what they knew about the shape of the world, and if they would ever tel her.
Then the Rockies began to ice up along the spring horizon beyond the shoot-’em-up town of Denver. Uncle Henry had never seen such a sight. He declared himself bewiligered at their height. “They surely do remind me of the Great Kels of Oz,” agreed Dorothy, “though the Kels looked less bossy, somehow.” She tried to ignore the glance Uncle Henry shared with Aunt Em.
Some of the passes being snowed over, even in early April, the train made slower progress than the timetable had promised. Aunt Em fretted that their hotel room would be given away. Uncle Henry replied with an attempt at savoir faire. “I’l wire ahead at the next opportunity, Em. Hush yourself and enjoy the nation.”
What a charade, that they were accustomed to taking fancified holidays. They had little extra money for emergencies, Dorothy knew. They were spending their savings.
The train chuffed along valeys noisy with rushing waters, inched across trestles as if testing them for purchase. It lolygagged up slopes. One cloudy afternoon it maneuvered through so many switchbacks that the travelers lost al notion of east and west. In her seat, Dorothy hummed a little. Once she thought she saw a castle on a ridge, but it was only a tricky rock formation.
“But I never before saw a rock that looked like a castle,” said Aunt Em brightly.
You never saw a castle, thought Dorothy, and tried not to be disappointed.
They worried their way through Nevada and its brownish springtime and at last came down into Californ-
through a napland of orchards and vineyards. When the train paused outside Sacramento to take on tinder, Dorothy saw a white peacock strutting along next to the tracks like a general surveying his troops. It paused at her window and fanned out its impossible stitchery. She could have sworn it was a White Peacock and that it would speak. But Toto began to yap out the open window, and the Bird kept its own counsel.
Finaly the train shrugged and chuffed into San Francisco, a city so big and filthy and confounding that Uncle Henry dared to murmur, “
beats your old Emerald City, I’l warrant.”
“Henry,” said his wife. “Pursed lips are kind lips.”
They found their hotel. The clerk was nice enough, a clean young man whose lips weren’t so much pursed as rubied. He forgave their delay but could no longer supply them with a room only one flight up, as they’d been promised. Aunt Em refused to try Mr. Otis’s hydraulic elevator so they had to climb five flights. They carried their own bags to avoid having to tip.
That night they ate Kaiser rols they’d bought at the train station. Al the next day they stayed in the hotel’s penitentialy severe room, as Aunt Em recovered from the taxation to her nerves caused by the swaying of railway cars. She could not tolerate being left alone in a hotel chamber on their first day, not when it felt as if the whole building was rocking and bucking as the train had done.
Dorothy was eager to go and see what she could see, but they wouldn’t let her walk out alone. “A city is not a prairie,” Aunt Em proclaimed through the damp washcloth laid from forehead to chin. “No place for a compromised girl without a scrap of city wits.”
The spring air wafting through the open window next morning revived Aunt Em. Al these flights up, it smeled of lilacs and hair oil and horse manure and hot sourdough loaves. Encouraged, the flatlanders ventured outdoors. Dorothy carried Toto in a wicker basket, for old times’ sake. They stroled up to the carriage entrance of the famous Palace Hotel and pretended they were waiting for a friend so they could catch a glimpse of sinful excess. What an accomplished offhand manner they showed, sneaking sideways glances through the open doors at the potted ferns, the swags of rust-red velvet drapery, the polished doorknobs. Also the glinting necklaces and earrings and cuff links, and gentlemen’s shirts starched so clean it hurt the eye to look. “Smart enough,” said Aunt Em, “for suchlike who feel the need to preen in public.” She was agog and dismissive at once, thought Dorothy, a considerable achievement for a plain-minded woman.
“The Palace Hotel is al very wel,” said Dorothy at lunch—a frankfurter and a sumptuous orange from a stal near Union Square—“but the Palace of the Emperor in the Emerald City is just as grand—”
“I shal be il.” Aunt Em, going pale. “I shal be il, Dorothy, if after al we have mortgaged on this expedition you insist on seeing San Francisco by comparing it to some imagined otherworld. I shal be quite, quite il.”
“I mean nothing by it,” said Dorothy. “Please, I’l be stil. It’s true I’ve never seen anything like most of this.”
“The world is wonderful enough without your having to invent an alternative,” said Uncle Henry. A tired man by now, not a wel man either, and stretched to put things baldly while there was time. “Who is going to take you in marriage, Dorothy, if you’ve already given yourself over to delusions and visions?”
“Snares of the wicked one.” Aunt Em, spitting an orange seed into the street. “We have been kind, Dorothy, and we have been patient. We have sat silent and we have spoken out. You must put the corrupting nightmare of Oz behind you. Close it behind a door and never speak of it again. Or you wil find yourself locked within it. Alone. We aren’t going to live forever, and you must learn to manage in the real world.”
“I should imagine I’m too young to be thinking of marriage.”
“You are already sixteen,” snapped her aunt. “
was married at seventeen.”
Uncle Henry’s eyes glinted merrily and he mouthed across his wife’s head at Dorothy:
Dorothy knew they had her best interests at heart. And it was true that since her delivery from Oz six years ago, she had proved a rare creature, a freak of nature. Her uncle and aunt didn’t know what to make of her. When she had appeared on the horizon, crossing the prairie by foot—shoeless but clutching Toto—long enough after Uncle Henry and Aunt Em’s home had been carried away that they’d built themselves a replacement—her return was reckoned a statistical impossibility. Who rides the winds in a twister and lives to tel about it? Though Kansans set store on the notion of revelation, they are skeptical when asked to accept any whole-cloth gospel not measurable by brass tacks they’ve waloped into the dry goods counter themselves. So upon her return, Dorothy had been greeted not as a ghost or an angel, neither blessed by the Lord nor saved by a secret pact she must have made with the Evil One. Just tetched, concluded the good folks of the district. Tetched in the big fat head.
The local schoolchildren who had often before given Dorothy a wide berth now made irrevocable their policy of shunning her. They were unanimous but wordless about it. They were after al Christians.
She’d learned to keep Oz to herself, more or less; of course things slipped out. But she didn’t want to be figured as peculiar. She’d taken up singing on the way home from the schoolhouse as a way to disguise the fact that no one would walk with her. And now that she was done with school, it seemed there were no neighbors who might tolerate her company long enough to find her marriageable. So Uncle Henry and Aunt Em were making this lastditch effort to prove that the workaday world of the Lord God Almighty was plenty rich and wonderful enough to satisfy Dorothy’s curiosity for marvels. She didn’t need to keep inventing impossible nonsense.
She keeps on yammering about that fever dream of Oz and she’ll be an old spinster with no one to warble to but the bones of Toto.
They rode cable cars. “Nothing like
in al of Oz!” said Dorothy as the cars bit their way upslope, tooth by tooth, and then plunged down.
They went to the Fisherman’s Wharf. Dorothy had never seen the ocean before; nor had Uncle Henry or Aunt Em. The man who sold them hanks of fried fish wrapped in twists of newspaper remarked that this wasn’t the ocean, just the bay. To see the ocean they’d need to go farther west, to the Presidio, or to Golden Gate Park.
For its prettier name, they headed to Golden Gate Park. A policeman told them that when the long swel of greenery was being laid out, the city hadn’t yet expanded west past Divisadero Street, and anything beyond had been known by squatters and locals as the Outside Lands. “Oh?” said Dorothy, with brightening interest.
“That’s where you’l find the ocean.”
They made their way to the edge of the continent first by carriage and then on foot, but the world’s edge proved disappointingly muffled in fog. The ocean was a sham. They could see no farther out into the supposed Pacific Ocean than they’d been able to look across the San Francisco Bay. And it was colder, a stiff wind tossing up briny air. The guls keened, biblical prophets practicing jeremiad, knowing more than they would let on. Aunt Em caught a sniffle, so they couldn’t stay and wait to see if the fog would lift. The clammy saltiness disagreed with her—and she with it, she did declare.
That night, as Aunt Em was repairing to her bed, Uncle Henry wheedled from his wife a permission to take Dorothy out on the town. He hired a trap to bring Dorothy into a district caled Chinatown.
Dorothy wanted so badly to tel Uncle Henry that
is what it felt like to be in Oz—this otherness, this weird but convincing reality—that she bit a bruise in the side of her mouth, trying not to speak. Toto looked wary, as if the residents on doorsils were sizing him up to see how many Chinese relatives he might feed.
After a number of false starts, Uncle Henry located a restaurant where other God-fearing white people seemed comfortable entering, and a few were even safely leaving, which was a good sign. So they went inside.
A staid woman at a counter nodded at them. Her unmoving features looked carved in beef aspic. When she slipped off her stool to show Henry to a table, Dorothy saw that she was tiny. Tiny and stout and wrapped round with shiny red silk. She only came up to Dorothy’s lowest rib. To prevent her from saying
Uncle Henry said to Dorothy, with his eyes,
They ate a spicy, peculiar meal, very wet, ful of moist grit. They wouldn’t know how to describe any of it to Aunt Em when they went back, and they were glad she wasn’t there. She would have swooned with the mystery of it. They liked it, though Uncle Henry chewed with the front of his lips clenched and the sides puckered open for air in case he changed his mind midbite.
“Where are these people from? Why are they here?” asked Dorothy in a whisper, pushing a chopstick into her basket so Toto could have something to gnaw.
“They’re furriners from China, which is across the world,” said Uncle Henry. “They came to build the railroad that we traveled on, and they stayed to open laundries and restaurants.”
“Why didn’t they ever come to Kansas?”
“They must be too smart.”
They both laughed at this, turning red. Dorothy could see that Uncle Henry loved her. It wasn’t his fault she seemed out of her mind.
“Uncle Henry,” said Dorothy before they had finished the grassy tea, “I know you’ve nearly poorhoused yourself to bring me here. I know why you and Aunt Em have done it. You want to show me the world and distract me with reality. It’s a good strategy and a mighty sound ambition. I shal try to repay you for your kindness to me by keeping my mouth shut about Oz.”
“Your sainted Aunt Em chooses to keep mum about it, Dorothy, but she knows you’ve had an experience few can match. However you managed to survive from the time the twister snatched our house away until the time you returned from the wilderness—whatever you scrabbled to find and eat that might have caused this weakness in your head—you nonetheless
manage. No one back home expected we’d ever find your corpse, let alone meet up again with your cheery optimistic self. You’re some pioneer, Dorothy. Every minute of your life is its own real miracle. Don’t deny it by fastening upon the temptation of some tomfoolery.”
She chose her words carefuly. “It’s just that it’s al so clear in my mind.”
“A mind is something a young lady from Kansas learns to keep private.”
As they began to pile up their plates, the Munchkin Chinee—that is, the little bowing woman in her silks and satins—scurried to interrupt them, and she brought them each a pastry like a crumpled seedpod.
When Uncle Henry and Dorothy looked dubious, she showed them how to crack one open. The fragments tasted like Aunt Em’s biscuits, dry and without savor. Inside, how drol: a scrap of paper in each one.
Marks in a funny squarish language on one side, letters in English on the other.
By the red light of the Chinese lantern leering over their table, Uncle Henry worked to decipher his secret message. His book learning had been scant. “Mid pleasure and palaces though we may roam, Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,” he read. “John Howard Payne.”
“Pain is right,” said Dorothy. “Meaning no disrespect, Uncle Henry.”
“He has a point, though, Dorothy. Be it ever so humble, and we have the humble part covered good enough, there’s no place like home. Now you read yours.”
“My mind to me a kingdom is, Such present joys therein I find, That it excels al other bliss That Earth affords or grows by kind. Sir Edward Dyer.”
“Dire is right,” said Uncle Henry.
The hobbled, squinch-eyed woman in red saw them through the beaded curtains toward the street, but at the lacquered door she grabbed Dorothy’s sleeve. “For you,” she said and handed Dorothy a tiny bamboo cage. Inside was a cricket. “For ruck. Cricket for ruck.”
Why do I need luck? Dorothy thought she’d spoken to herself but the woman answered as if she’d spoken aloud. (Maybe she had. Maybe she was dotty, a dodo, like the children had caled her. Dotty Dorothy. Dorothy Dodo.)