My alarm went off at 4:00 this morning. Did I pull myself out of my turkey hangover and stumble into my car for a morning of mercantile mayhem? Nope. For one thing, last night we had home-made cream of tomato soup and grilled cheddar on baguette sandwiches; our turkey feast will take place tomorrow. As far as Black Friday goes, I had a different set of numbers in mind. I donned the navy blue bathrobe that predates three children and even my marriage. (It took some verbal gymnastics to explain to my mother on the morning of the first Christmas Mike and I shared how he knew I needed a robe.) I brewed my tea (Peets’ Winter Solstice), made my breakfast, read the paper and deliberately repressed the urge to break routine and race to my computer. But when I sat down to the keyboard, it was with a sense of delicious urgency. This morning I reached the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words. In the interests of literary integrity, I’ll refrain from putting the abundance of exclamation points and emoticons in my head onto paper.
Tomorrow is our family Thanksgiving. This oddball tradition-nouveau of holding our celebration the Saturday following the fourth Thursday of November dates back several years to my first Thanksgiving on call. Through the years, our family has discovered that moving our dinner to Saturday enables my sister and her husband to join his family on Thursday and to celebrate with us on Saturday. This system is great for familial harmony, but a bit hard on Steph and Mike and their digestion – particularly since I’m not sure that my sister even likes turkey.
I spent yesterday chopping, slicing, boiling, sautéing, and baking. Total production: candied yams – 1 pan, cranberry relish – 2 varieties, apple pie – 1, mince tarts – 11, bourbon-laced pumpkin cheesecake –1. Also bringing olives, cheese, and a loaf of pumpkin bread from my freezer. With all of this bounty, and with the anticipation of my father’s famous BBQ’d turkey, it may seem strange to note the one dish that calls to me every year. The dish for which I accept no substitution or omissions. Stuffing? No. Yams? Nope. And, no, not the bird. I can’t comprehend Thanksgiving without creamed onions.
This is not something other people understand. Even within our family circle, I think there are only four or five of us who like this dish. Outside of the family, well, let’s just say that claiming that creamed onions are your favorite part of Thanksgiving, does not raise you in the estimation of the general public. In addition to being pretty much devoid of nutritional value, this is a humble dish – our family’s equivalent of the hoary green-bean-casserole (btw, a favorite of my husband’s family and now the only green vegetable all of my children will eat.) Here’s the basic recipe.
Pearl onions – frozen, 1 package
Mix together in casserole dish. Top with dried breadcrumbs, and place under broiler until breadcrumbs are golden and sauce bubbles.
This is usually cooked and sometimes (depending on how tired Mom and I are) even served in Mom’s most humble casserole dish – a square, blue-flowered, Corning-ware pan that may be older than I.
As a family, ours tends toward culinary and intellectual elitism. (My husband would say snobbery.) My sister and I were raised with foods like calamari, fennel, and sorrel decades before they were trendy. We once spent the better part of a summer scouring the foothills of the gold country in my father’s legendary quest for a sausage-stuffer. When it comes to pop-culture trivia, we are abysmal failures, but references to politics, history, literature, and classical music wander into our daily conversation. I am by far the worst offender, and the one crowned “snob” by my husband. I hate fart jokes, buddy comedies, McDonalds, and Wal-Mart. Peeps fill me with horror, and I am more likely to bring risotto stuffed baby bell peppers than chips-and-dip to a potluck. I’ve been known to quote Shakespeare or Donne while sewing up a horse, and I believe that we should never elect politicians unable to properly pronounce the word “nuclear.” If these things make me a snob, I’m okay with it.
For several years now, I’ve been struggling with the written version of haute cuisine, the literary short story. As a self-designated over-achieving elitist, I felt it incumbent upon me to strive to produce exquisite works of Literature. (Note the capital ‘L.’) Here’s the problem. I wasn’t having any fun, and it showed. I read and review literary fiction, subscribe to several journals, and generally admire and even wallow in the works of great writers. But, when I want to read for fun, where do I go? Do I call upon Updike, Oates, or Franzen? Nah? I visit my friends: Rowling, L’Engle, Riordan, and Alexander . I will say it. Children’s literature, particularly middle-grade fantasy, is my fictional creamed onions.
So, when I decided to embark upon NaNoWriMo (an undertaking often excoriated in the halls of serious literature and publishing), I threw pretense to the winds. This month, my characters have fallen through cupboards and into swamps, met a gnome, battled a dragon, suffered heat stroke, been kidnapped by a donkey, and followed a spontaneously combusting mountain goat. There’s also a magic sword, a mysterious cape, and an enchanted necklace. What a blast! The novel itself is nowhere near done, but in honor of reaching my word goal, here’s an entire chapter. Enjoy! I’m going to go pack, and then it’s off to my creamed onions.
Follow that Donkey!
Dylan’s first thought was that she was sitting in an oven, being eaten by a furry giant with a long, ugly face. She jumped to her feet, but the oven door didn’t open, and no one turned down the temperature. Dylan rubbed her hands across her eyes, pushing the tears back inside, and looked around. The oven opened before her as a vast ocean of sand and beige rock, reaching almost as far as she could see, revealing itself to be a desert. The ugly giant turned out to be a shaggy grey donkey. Dylan scratched at her head. The donkey must have mistaken her hair for a crop of carrots. “Gross! Donkey spit.”
“Is that your idea of some new bad word or something?” Richard raised himself on one elbow, his free hand checking for his glasses, which had miraculously stayed on his face. He looked at his sister. “Oh, I see. Hi, Donkey.”
“Do you think it’s going to answer?” Sylvia sat up, pulling her robe, now no longer white, around her ankles and hugging her knees.
“The way things have gone lately?” Richard squinted at her. “Doesn’t seem too impossible, now does it?”
“Improbable, maybe,” Sylvia muttered, but she looked closely at the donkey. So far, however, it showed no signs of turning into anything other than an ordinary if somewhat randomly appearing beast of burden.
“The ass will not speak.” Abbletrotkin clutched the base of his razron as though fearing that it would separate from his head. “Magic is not strong in this world. Not that sort of magic, at any rate. Here, you will find that the animals are merely animals. The men, however…” He shook his head.
“What about the men?” Sylvia said. She bent over Dylan, checking her arms and legs. “I think you scraped your knee again, but that looks like the only damage.”
Dylan shook her head. “No, that was from falling out of the tree at school yesterday. Was it yesterday? I can’t remember; it seems so far away.”
“I know.” Sylvia wrapped her arms around Dylan’s shoulders. “It’s going to be okay. I wish we had a band-aid for that scrape, though. It wouldn’t be good for it to get infected out here.”
“Maybe there’s something in the pack that George threw at us,” Richard said. “Do you still have it, Syl, or did it get sucked into the ground in the earthquake?”
Sylvia looked around until she spotted something dark brown behind a pale rock. “Here it is. Do you really think there’s going to be a first-aid kit in here or something? We just came from a world with a dragon infestation, where women die in childbirth, for pity’s sake.” Shaking her head, she bent nonetheless to untie the leather thong that secured the neck of the bundle. She cleared a flat spot in the sand and began to lay out the items one by one, inventorying them aloud as she unpacked. “Looks like some bread, a couple of loaves. Something squishy, looks like it’s filled with liquid; could it be the medieval version of a water bottle?” She paused and Abbletrotkin nodded. “Ok, water then, I hope. Oh good, four of those.” She handed around the water bottles. “Tuck them into your tunics or whatever. Each of us should carry our own. But don’t,” she glared at her siblings, “drink it all right away. Who knows when we’ll find any more. Ok, what else? Some…moss?”
“Poultice,” said Abbletrotkin.
“I guess that’ll work. Here, Dylan, let me have your knee. I wonder if there’s something I can use to tie it on. What’s this yellowish thing?” Like a magician performing a scarf trick, Sylvia pulled an increasing length of glistening fabric from the pack.
“Whoa!” Richard blinked. “That’s no band-aid. What is that? A cape? Is it gold?”
Sylvia ran the fabric between her fingers. “It feels like really heavy silk. The threads kind of look gold.” She looked at Abbletrotkin. “I didn’t see anything like this in the village. Is this one of those things that you know something about but we don’t?”
He shook his head. “I am as bemused by this object as you. I can tell you that it has great value, and is very old.”
“How are we defining old, these days?” Richard asked. “Old from our time – world, whatever – or old from George’s time, or yours? What is your time, for that matter?”
“Time is a construct, Richard. You humans seem to look at time as a straight line, along which one can move only forward.”
“Well, yeahhh.” Dylan shook her head. “Time is like a story, it goes from start to finish.”
“What if, instead of a line, you look at time as a tree, with many branches, some of which touch and cross each other? Could you not move along the branches, passing between them at will?”
Sylvia dropped the cloak into her lap and stared at the gnome. “The garden. The designs in the garden at the castle. They have something to do with time, don’t they?”
Abbletrotkin nodded. “As I told you, the garden tells our story. Did Dylan not just say that time is like a story?”
Richard shook his head in disgust. “And that’s all you’re going to tell us, isn’t it?”
“For now, yes.”
“That’s a bad habit, you have, Abbletrotkin, this keeping stuff from us unless we weasel it out of you, or you think you need to know. Not to mention distracting us. Back to the cape. What did you mean it was old?”
“Simply that the knowledge required to turn gold into cloth has been lost for centuries – in any of the worlds, as far as I know.”
“Can’t somebody just climb back to that branch and get it,” Dylan asked.
Abbletrotkin chuckled. “Trust you to make a complex problem seem simple. Well, Dylan, given that the garment is here, it appears that perhaps someone did just that.”
Sylvia found a strip of cotton in the pack and bound the poultice to Dylan’s knee. She stood up, stretching and took in their surroundings for the first time. “It’s getting hotter. It must still have been early when we landed. We really need to find some shade, and do something about water. Desert dwellers try to stay out of the sun in the middle of the day, and so should we.” She looked critically at her brother. “Richard, you’re going to burn like a lobster, come here.” She rummaged through the pack again. “Well, old and valuable or no, this is going to have to do.” She fashioned the gold cloak into a sort of head covering for her pale-skinned brother, ignoring Abbletrotkin’s shudder. Precious artifacts were all well and good, but if Richard died from exposure in the desert, what good would the cloak do any of them?
The heavy silk felt like an anchor dragging at Richard’s head and shoulders, but he knew better than to argue with Sylvia when she’d been having a bad day. Since the day looked like it was turning into the better part of a week, Richard figured he’d just keep his mouth shut. “I think that the most effective course of action would be to head for those palm trees over there. There can’t be trees without water, can there?”
“I wouldn’t think so…” Sylvia looked at Abbletrotkin who shrugged.
“My people are miners. Boldarkin is the only one of us so obsessed with trees and plants. But, I suspect you are right. At any rate, the trees may provide some relief from the sun.” He picked up Dylan, setting her on the donkey’s back over Sylvia’s protests.
Dylan grinned from her perch. “What do you think is going to happen to me up here? It’s not like the donkey is going to take off or anything.”
That sentence seemed to Sylvia to be tempting fate. She grabbed for her sister – a moment too late. Right on cue, the donkey bolted into a rapid, bone jarring trot into the horizon.
“Well, at least he’s heading the right way,” Richard said. He took the hand of his shaking sister. “Come on. He’ll stop eventually. Let’s go follow.”
Sylvia thought her body would shatter from the shaking. As she spun to scream at Richard, she caught the eye of the gnome, and realized that her brother was right. Of the terrifying things that had happened this week, a donkey trotting away with Dylan across a flat, empty desert ranked pretty low. There were no trucks, no cliffs, and, as far as Sylvia could see, no wildlife or people of any sort. She sighed; she was getting tired of freaking out constantly, and she didn’t at all care for the fact that, on this adventure, Richard was turning out to be the one who had it together. “Ok, follow that donkey!”
They soon realized that donkey tracking was easy. The desert was like a giant sand table; the tracks of Dylan’s donkey were the only feature for miles. On the downside, the tracks of Dylan’s donkey were the only feature for miles. There was literally nothing to see beyond each other’s faces and a world divided almost equally in half – completely blue sky, and completely beige ground. After an hour in the blinding sun, Richard would have given his arm or leg, or at least a couple of toes, to see a tree, or a house, or even a good sized pebble. The only things that kept him moving forward were the string of hoofprints, Sylvia’s glare between his shoulder blades, and the faint promise of trees at the distant seam between blue and beige. Even the trees seemed like a cruel joke. “Do you think it’s just a mirage?” he asked, sipping a bit of water from his container and trying not to think about the fact that it tasted a little like medieval goat.
“Do I think what’s a mirage?” Sylvia barely looked up from the line of hoofmarks. Her feet had not broken stride since they had set out after Dylan. If she was hot, tired, or thirsty, it didn’t show. Nothing showed except a robotic determination to find the donkey and their sister.
“The trees. Are we just heading toward something that isn’t real? I mean what if there’s no point? What if desert is all there is?”
“The point is to find Dylan. Even if the trees are just a mirage, the donkey went that way, so we go that way. Richard,” Sylvia stopped, and cupped her hand under his chin. “Whatever else is going on here, we stick together. We need each other, and the only way to figure out how to get home is together. I know you’re scared and hot and tired and bored. So am I, but we don’t stop until we find our baby sister, ok?”
“It is not a mirage.” Abbletrotkin’s voice sounded like glass being ground over gravel, but his step was firm, and he looked like he could walk forever. “If we are, as I suspect, in the World of the Book, there are oases in this world. You should know that as well. You know the stories, do you not? You knew of my kind, and of St. George, and the archangel Michael.”
“Which Book?” An idea was slowly unfurling in Sylvia’s mind.
“I do not know its name in your world. It holds many stories of the balance. The tale of the cloak of the colors, the story of the one who turned back the sea, the man whose wife turned into mineral for her faithlessness. There are more, but these I remember.”
“Lot’s wife!” Richard jumped in place. “And Moses!”
“And Joseph and the coat of many colors.” Sylvia looked at Abbletrotkin. “We call it the Old Testament of the Bible, but there are other names for it in our world, too.” She stared at the line of donkey tracks and back at the gnome. “So, you’re saying that we are in the world of the Old Testament stories?”
“It would appear so.”
The two children looked at each other. “Gnomes and elves in one world,” said Sylvia.
“St. George and the Dragon.” Richard nodded.
“And now we’re in the Old Testament. Do you get the feeling that we’re moving through the grades? Each of these worlds is like something from Main Lessons.”
“Ok, but why? Is this some sort of test that no one told us about? I’ve never heard any of the kids talk about it, and besides if it’s a graduation test for you, what are Dylan and I doing here?”
“I don’t think so.” Sylvia shook her head slowly. “I mean it is a test, or a challenge or something, but not a school test. I think we’re looking at it backwards. I don’t think the worlds are based on school. I think school was teaching us about the nine worlds.” She looked at Abbletrotkin. “That’s it, isn’t it? Our school is some sort of training ground or something. For what? What are we supposed to do? And why us?” She grimaced. “Yeah, I know, that’s the question the heroes always ask. But, seriously, why us? We aren’t heroes. We’re three kids with a screwed up home, from a screwed up world, who can’t even get stuff from an old classroom without it blowing up. That’s not heroic, that’s accident-prone.”
Abbletrotkin trudged ahead, leaving Sylvia and Richard staring at his back. For a moment, it seemed as though he would refuse to answer. Then, his voice floated back to them. “You are correct about your school. The Guardians have always known that the ultimate battle for the Balance would take place in your world, the world in which Ahriman is most likely to manifest, where he has the strongest hold. Thus, it was determined that those who would provide the final defense of the Balance must also be of your world. And so, a system of schools was begun with the purpose of training those who would restore the Balance.”
“Okay, but Sylvia’s right, why us?” Richard stopped walking. “Don’t tell me this is where you say ominously, ‘There have been others,’ and allude to the terrible fates of other schoolers. Or, no, wait – you said something before about a Prophecy. Let me guess, it said ‘Lo and a Bossy girl with black curls, a super-evolved but near-sighted boy, and an annoying brat with carrot-salad hair will restore the Balance, and you all thought of us.”
Sylvia punched her brother on the arm as Abbletrotkin answered seriously. “No, I know of no others. Any terrible fate must be your own.”
“Gee, that’s comforting,” Richard muttered.
“And, as for Prophecy. Yes, the Prophecy exists, but insofar as I am aware, you are not mentioned.”
“Insofar as you are aware? What does that mean?” Richard asked.
“The actual wording of the Prophecy was lost generations ago. What little knowledge we Guardians possess of the text has been passed between the Guardians of the words over time.”
“Your time or ours? Never mind.” Richard disavowed his own question. “The time thing still makes my brain hurt. Ok, so some idiot in one of the time arcs put the Prophecy ‘in a safe place,’ and now it and the Balance are missing. Nifty.”
“Ok, but if we’re not the heroes of the Prophecy, what are we doing here? Why did the stupid cupboard eat us? Why didn’t it suck up the right kids?” Sylvia twisted her hair up into a knot. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck, and the donkey footprints seemed to go on forever. “But really, could the cupboard be in the wrong school or something? I can’t see any of the kids saving the world, or worlds, or whatever. I mean most of us are lucky if we remember our homework and lunches. Some of my class can still barely tie their shoes.”
Richard nodded. “Yeah, as schools go, we’re not really a heroic bunch. I mean, Josh can throw a basketball ok, and Amanda in Sylvia’s class plays a mean violin, but as far as world-saving skills, not so much.”
Abbletrotkin turned to face them. “What makes you think that there are designated heroes?”
They stared. “There’s always a hero,” Richard said. “That’s how the stories go. The guy or girl or whatever with the special destiny has all of fate resting on his hands, or hers. There’s always a chosen one.”
Abbletrotkin shook his head. “No destiny. No chosen one. What we know of the Prophecy speaks of the loss of the Balance and the rise of Ahriman in your world. Our stories allude to a human child, but the allusion is general. The decision to create your schools was one of prudence rather than a bow to destiny.”
“But then why did we fall through the cupboard? And why did all of our teachers send us to that room at the same time? And why has Mom seemed so worried lately? And why did Mr. Loupe appear in the room if it wasn’t something to do with us?” Sylvia’s head felt like it was spinning, and the tracks in the sand began to blur.
“I cannot speak for your teachers or your mother. From what you say, I presume that your Mr. Loupe is one of the Guardians of your world, and I can only guess that he was drawn by the energies surrounding the Balance. He may have been as surprised to find you in that room as you, yourselves were. As for your trip through the cupboard, you were simply the ones who were present when the cupboard opened. Nothing more sinister nor more grand.”
Richard felt like a fish with his jaw flapping. So, all this craziness had nothing to do with some pre-ordained Fate; they were simply the victims of bad luck? His head felt a little woozy trying to process. So, the fate of the universe could have rested in the hands of Larry in seventh grade or corkscrew-curled Emilia in Dylan’s class. Wow! He looked over at Sylvia to see how she was taking the news of their insignificance, and bolted to catch her as she turned white and fell. “Abbletrotkin! A little help here!” He lowered his sister on to the sand. Sylvia didn’t look it, but she was heavy!
The gnome knelt by Sylvia’s head. “I believe that the heat is affecting your sister.” He joggled Sylvia’s full waterskin and shook his head. “We see this in the mines with new workers who wish to prove themselves to their elders. They neglect their own care in their eagerness. Your sister has not stopped to drink or to rest, and now her body pays the price. We must stop here, and provide her shade and water.”
Richard touched Sylvia’s clammy forehead and looked at the endless trail that led Dylan away from them. “We can’t stop. Dylan’s just a little kid, and she’s out there all by herself. What if something happens to her?” He started to shake, suddenly understanding the pressures Sylvia felt every day. He was responsible for his sisters, and he had no idea how he could take care of both of them.
“If your sister does not rest and cool her body, she will die.” Abbletrotkin’s face twisted as though someone had punched him. “I am concerned about Dylan as well. The little one should not be alone, but I fear that we have little choice. If we continue to seek her at this pace, Sylvia will not survive. I have seen that as well in the mines. The body can be pushed beyond endurance. When that happens, the spirit leaves.”
Richard stared at the distant, shadowy trees that seemed no nearer despite the passing hours. “Okay. Well, I guess this fancy cape might make a decent tent.” He dribbled some water into Sylvia’s mouth and soaked a strip of cotton from the pack, placing it on her forehead.
“Wet her wrists as well,” Abbletrotkin said as he fashioned a low canopy from the golden cloak. “There should be enough room in the shade for the two of us as well, if we remain prone.”
Richard groaned as he crept under the cape. “Good thing we aren’t foreordained heroes.”
Abbletrotkin looked at him in question.
“When Syl wakes up, she’s gonna kill me.”