by Mary E. Lowd
At first, Beverly was terrified of falling off or squeezing her knees too hard into Ginny’s sides. But the wolf didn’t object to her tight grip, and eventually Beverly relaxed into the uneven rhythm of the wolf’s steady gait.
The three of them traveled in silence, under the lightening sky.
“That thing you did with the colors,” Beverly said. “In the sky? With your paws?”
“Painting the sky,” Ginny said, her voice deep and husky from the exercise of carrying two riders.
“You called it your work,” Beverly said.
“Yes, but it’s really more of a calling.” The wolf’s stride didn’t change when she spoke.
“What’s it for?” Beverly asked.
“Yes, does it… summon the morning? Or was it some kind of magic protection spell?” Beverly had no idea what the rules were in this world. “Something to keep those crazed knights you mentioned away?”
“No,” Ginny said. “Nothing like that. It’s just an expression of myself. And my feelings. I paint the sky. It’s what I do.”
Beverly wanted to ask ‘why?’ A lifetime of living in the real world — or at least, the world that had been real for her until now — told her that there needed to be more of a reason. Something deeper. Something explanatory. But she didn’t ask. She knew, somehow, that asking ‘why?’ would mean she’d entirely missed the point.
Instead, she said, “It was beautiful.”
“Thank you,” Ginny replied.
Beverly and Rocky continued to ride Ginny, moving along at a loping pace, until the visitor to this world had lost all sense of time. The sky continued to darken, and the stars brightened beyond anything Beverly had seen in her normal world. The real world. They shone so bright and big, Beverly almost imagined she could make out features on their faces — landscapes like the moon has, pockmarked with craters. Except, these tiny, minuscule landscapes weren’t constrained to barren, lunar deserts. Beverly could have sworn, peering at these stars, she made out visions of tiny, faraway forests; rivers and waterfalls; great plains and rocky mountain ranges.
Were they stars?
Or were all the stars in this sky other worlds?
Beverly felt like if she peered at them hard enough, she could fall through the space in between and visit those faraway worlds in the sky.
Perhaps, the exhaustion of this unexpected journey was getting to her. Or maybe this really was a dream, and there were no true rules here, just the changing logic of what her subconscious mind could remember from one moment to the next.
By the time Ginny stopped loping across this otherworldly terrain — the forests here had magenta leaves, and the grass grew in lovely shades of purples — Beverly had nearly fallen asleep on the wolf’s soft fur.
“We’ll stop here for the night,” Rocky said. “I know the bears who live here.”
“Bears?” Beverly asked. She shouldn’t have been surprised — her traveling companions were a raccoon and wolf. And yet, somehow, bears sounded more dangerous to her than wandering knights. Well, maybe not crazed knights.
“Yes,” Ginny agreed. “They’re a lovely family.”
Beverly followed the wolf’s and raccoon’s gaze and saw a perfect little thatched roof cottage, nestled among the azure-leaved trees. It looked straight out of a fairy tale. Straight out of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Docilely, Beverly followed her traveling companions to the cottage’s door, waited while they knocked, and smiled politely when a bear in an apron opened the door.
There were more than three bears in the cottage — Mama, Papa, and three children, in fact. And they didn’t serve their guests porridge, rather a hearty rabbit stew. Beverly found herself wondering about the rabbits of this world — were there two kinds? One kind that you could cook into a stew and another, larger, bipedal kind who would sneer at you for eating it? Beverly didn’t ask. Sometimes, as the pilot in The Little Prince discovered, when a mystery is too overpowering, one dare not disobey. Or in this case, even question it.
Beverly slept well in the bears’ cottage, and sleeping made this strange world she’d fallen into feel even more real. For she dreamt of the real world — filled with text messages and emails from her boss — only to awake and find herself still here. Somehow, the texts and emails seemed more imaginary than a bear in a ruffly apron frying her eggs for breakfast while three cubs played with wooden blocks, building tiny towers on the floor.
After breakfast, Beverly and Rocky rode Ginny away from the bears’ home, through a countryside filled with figures who seemed like living fairytales. They passed by rabbits hanging out rabbit-sized clothes on a line to dry, white bloomers fluttering in the soft wind. A tortoise and a hare walked side-by-side down the dusty dirt road, gesticulating wildly and arguing with words Beverly couldn’t quite make out. A porcupine carried a basket through a meadow in the distance, gathering brightly colored flowers.
It felt like the threads of Beverly’s life had been used to sew two entirely different garments together — like her life had been a perfectly normal T-shirt, old, faded, and boring, but the bottom had been hacked off with scissors and the ragged edge sewn onto the shimmering, crenulated folds of a ballgown or prom dress. Something with sequins and silk. Something Cinderella’s fairy godmother might have summoned in technicolor bursts of magic from her wand.
This world felt as real as anything Beverly had ever experienced, but she still knew it wasn’t normal to be surrounded by talking animals who could reach up and change the colors of the sky.
The day wore on, and Beverly’s incredulity wore thinner. This was the world she was in. What did normal mean anyway?
And no matter how sparkly or ruffled a garment might be, when you’re wearing it, it’s still clothes. It still needs to cover you and keep you warm, while letting you move around and do what you need to do. Sparkly ball gown or old T-shirt. When you’re wearing it, you’re still yourself inside.
“Will we stop to spend the night with another animal family tonight?” Beverly asked. They hadn’t stopped for lunch, so much as Ginny had walked slowly beside a thick berry bush, and all three of them had grazed, picking and eating the luscious berries — brighter purple than any berry Beverly had seen before — as they passed by.
“Yes,” Rocky answered. “We’ll stay with a badger who writes histories. If you would, I’m sure she’d appreciate you telling her as much of your life between your last visit here and now as you can.”
Beverly couldn’t imagine her quiet millennial life full of emails and webpages would interest the talking animal people who lived in this world. But maybe she could dust off a couple of stories from college. Or maybe she was wrong — maybe emails and webpages, which seemed mundane and boring to her, would sound completely magical to an historian badger living in a thatched-roof cottage or a cozy den underground.
Beverly never got to find out.
One of the crazed knights found them, and after a terrifying fight between Ginny — who seemed even larger with her russet-gray fur fluffed out and her teeth bared — and a knight in gleaming, clanking silver armor, while Rocky and Beverly cowered in the berry bushes, the trio were forced to change their plans.
Rocky and Ginny didn’t want to endanger any more of their friends by staying with them, and so they continued traveling through the night. Instead of rabbit stew and a borrowed bed, Beverly ate berries that tasted less and less sweet as her stomach growled for something more substantial and caught a brief nap on the hard ground, hidden beneath brambly vines.
A world full of fairytale animals felt far less magical as Beverly experienced it the next day, through a body bruised and sore from bad sleep and a stomach cramping from too many berries and too little of anything else.
“What do the knights want?” Beverly asked as Ginny loped along through the dark forest. They’d abandoned the wide dusty dirt road and stuck now to narrow, overgrown paths that twisted and turned between underbrush so thick that Beverly knew she could never find her way back out of the forest on her own. She tried not to be scared. Yet she found herself longing for the simplicity of her Grand-Annie’s house, full of junk that needed to be sorted into piles for donation, keeping, and trash.
“The knights want you,” Ginny answered, but Beverly knew that answer couldn’t be right.
“No,” Beverly said. “They think I’m a little girl still, don’t they? So they wouldn’t want me. Not me like this.”
“You’re a woman, strange to this land,” Rocky explained. “And most of the knights have long since lost their minds to the candies Queen Hazel gifts them to increase their strength and focus. They’ve dragged every girl and woman they could find before Queen Hazel. They would drag you there too.”
“Why not let them?” Beverly asked. “I mean, we’re going to the castle to see Queen Hazel anyway.”
“Would you rather travel with a crazed knight than with us?” Ginny asked, pointedly, turning her head just enough to glance at her riders through the side of her eye.
“No,” Beverly admitted, remembering the flash of the knight’s broadsword before Ginny had launched herself bodily at his legs and knocked him over. His sword had gone flying in the underbrush, giving them a chance to get away. “No, I’d rather be with you.”
The darkness of the forest made it hard to tell when sunset fell. Ginny didn’t get to paint the sky. Not only were they too busy traveling, but the sky was too hidden from view by the thick evergreen boughs above.
Beverly wondered if they’d stop for the night with such profound darkness surrounding them on all sides, but Ginny traveled on. Her eyes must have seen more than Beverly’s could, better adjusted to darkness, better attuned for travel at night.
Beverly fell asleep clinging to Ginny’s back with her arms and legs, her head leaned against Rocky’s smaller back like the raccoon was a pillow. She dreamed a dream within the dreamworld that had become her reality — a dream of meeting Queen Hazel, a figure who shifted dizzyingly between the fair-haired princess she remembered and the cruel queen Beverly now imagined. For what kind of queen fills her peaceful world of talking animals with crazed sword-wielding knights, powered by some mysterious candy she gave them?
Queen Emily’s daughter, Beverly supposed.
Had the sweet, smiling confidant she remembered grown into a tyrant? Should Beverly fear meeting her?
Would Queen Hazel let Beverly return to her own world? After turning this world upside-down looking for her, would she be released so easily? Or was she to be a prisoner in the castle that had been her favorite daydream during her childhood?
Even in her sleep, Beverly tried to take comfort from the fact that Rocky and Ginny had been good and kind to her — and also to all the animals they’d stopped to talk with as they’d passed. Rocky and Ginny wouldn’t take her to Queen Hazel if the queen intended cruelty toward her. Surely they wouldn’t.
But even if Queen Hazel was the same sweet person underneath her new crown as the Princess Hazy who Beverly remembered, would she even know how to return anyone to the place Beverly still thought of as the real world?
It had taken decades for Rocky to find her. Returning home might be just as hard.
Continue on to Part IV…