Story no. 53. What a perfect delight this section was to write! I thoroughly advise everyone to pick up A.S. Byatt and P.G. Wodehouse when they are feeling under the writing weather.
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“I can, of course, leave any time I like,” Mr. Jenkins said primly. “I was just performing a bit of reconnaissance to assess the scope of the problem here.”
“Of course,” Aunt Thompson said sourly.
“Of course,” the human echoed faintly. It was staring at a clay hedgehog with its brow furrowed. The hedgehog was wearing a pink bowtie and a purple vest. “Is there any chance this place is—ah—a outgrowth of a real place? Or maybe an amalgation of real places?”
“Almost definitely,” Mr. Jenkins said. “Why do you ask?”
“I recognize that hedgehog,” the human said. “It’s right at the top of Aunt Lara’s garden. Uncle Klaas kept vanishing it into the cellar until she hid it behind a rhododendron.”
“So what?” Aunt Thompson snapped. “It’s only a shadow.” She picked up the hedgehog and threw it at the ground; it dissolved into a little pile of sand. When we looked back at the shelf, the ceramic hedgehog was back in its former location, but now its eyes were narrowed and it was holding a little clay knife.
“If it’s a shadow, it’s still got a link to the thing casting it,” the human said. “I might be able to set up a gate back to where it’s throwing from. If,” it added, inspecting one hand, “you give me back my book.”
Aunt Thompson slow-blinked at the human. “That’s a terrible ploy.”
“If it were a ploy, it’s a respectable and time-honored one,” the human retorted, redness suffusing its face to its shaven hairline. “But it’s not, and I can make a gate. At least, I’ve, well. I’ve done it before.”
“Did you go through the gate yourself?” I asked suspiciously. “Or did some other sap test it for you?”
“Just because I’m related to rats doesn’t mean I am one,” the human snapped. “I went through it myself. I walked about a bit and then . . . came back quickly.”
“What happened, then?” I went on. “Was the gate unstable? Because—”
“There was an incident,” the human said, with measured dignity, “with pigs.”
Aunt Thompson reached into her antlers and produced the small book from a shadow between two branches. “Here,” she said, dropping the volume into the startled human’s hands.
“I want to be out of here, and pigs are interesting,” she said. “Make a gate.”
The human muttered something and feverishly flipped pages. It looked up at the hedgehog; the hedgehog glared back. It looked at the book, then down at me, then up at Aunt Thompson, then slightly cross-eyed at Mr. Jenkins.
“Well, it’s better than nothing,” the human said. It hung the book on another invisible stand in the air, took the hedgehog off a shelf, and stuffed it through a page, as though it were shoving a recalcitrant cat through a too-small cat door. The ceramic buckled and folded as though it were skin rather than clay, and the human yanked its hands away, as though it had been stabbed by a great quantity of needles.
The book contemplated for a moment, its pages flickering gently, before it belched a gust of dusty air and unfolded into a doorway. The door itself was only about as a tall as I was and floating that height again off the ground. A dense mat of glossy, dark green leaves blocked even of a hint of what was waiting for us on the other side.
“You first, Teapot,” Aunt Thompson said. Before I could argue with that procedure, she had picked me up by the collar and shoved me into the leaves.
The gate sent a sheet of electrical tingling rolling over my skin, and I was still shuddering and gagging when I stood up properly on the other side. I was, as the human had predicted, standing in the middle of a rhododendron. There were two ceramic hedgehogs there with me, the brilliantly-colored one the human had shoved through the book before me and a smaller, duller one wearing only a vest and an insipid smile. Now the first hedgehog was wearing a waistcoat, jacket, and cravat. The knife it had generated in self-defense had transformed into a hedgehog-sized machete. It waved this menacingly in my direction before waddling away with a sound like teacups clinking. The smaller, duller ceramic hedgehog, which I assumed to be the real artifact, considered this for a moment, before shuffling away after it.
The branches behind me rattled, and Aunt Thompson’s hairy snout poked over my shoulder. “Never liked rhododendrons,” she muttered. Her voice sounded curiously hollow inside the hedge. “Poisonous to deer, you know.”
“Are you a really a deer, though?” the human said, having apparently come through the gate just after her.
“What an exceedingly rude question,” Mr. Jenkins murmured, gathering his many wings close to himself like an assortment of capes.
“How will you get the book through after us?” I asked curiously.
The human snapped loudly. The air popped, and the book fell from nowhere into its hand.
“It likes to follow me, if it can,” the human said. “It has more adventures that way.”
I felt both Aunt Thompson and Mr. Jenkins level very interested gazes at the book, and the book level a somewhat less friendly gaze back at them.
We set off through the hedge in the same direction the ceramic hedgehogs had gone. It was a very large hedge. Enormous heads of ruffly pink flowers kept poking through the screen of leaves and getting caught in Aunt Thompson’s antlers.
“Are you sure you’ve brought us into a real place?” Mr. Jenkins asked.
“I am,” the human said, but it sounded unsure. “Just through here.”
It ducked past me, through another doorway made of twisted rhododendron branches.
We were standing at the top of a long, thin garden plot, behind a tall, thin house of soot-blackened bricks. The house butted into a sheer rock wall on one side; on the other a row of similarly tall and thin structures stretched away down a steep slope, all with thin gardens trailing away behind them, each separated from the next by a wall of grim gray stone. The rhododendron hedge, unsurprisingly, was much smaller on the outside, but that’s often the case even on the Blue Earth. There was no sign of the hedgehogs anywhere.
It appeared to be the same pocket world we’d just left—or at least I would have sworn it was the same one—but the human was frowning mightily.
After a minute I realized it was actually frowning at something specific: a small gray figure in the middle of the very gray garden, hunched over a book with gray pages and a gray cover.
“I may have made a small error,” the human said.
The small gray figure looked up at the sound of its voice. It was a very small and ugly child, with red hair, a large chin and nose, and rather bulbous eyes. Its hair was piled on top of its head in a number of rope-like braids. “Who are you?” it asked disagreeably. “Are you a cousin? Aunt Lara won’t like you being here. She hates cousins unless they’re hers.”
“I’m not your cousin,” the human said.
“What’s that book you’re holding?” the child demanded. “What’s it about? Is it interesting? You can have my schoolbook if you let me look at it,” it added, with a sort of disgusted magnanimity. “It’s not interesting at all. I’ve read it four times and everyone’s so busy being virtuous that they don’t do anything.”
“Right,” said the human. “Yes. Right. I’ll read that.” It walked down the garden to take the schoolbook from the child, who stood on the bench so it could page through the tiny magical book, now hovering in the air.
Aunt Thompson had started sniffing and snorting as soon as we’d stepped out the hedge. After a minute, I sucked in a good whiff of air too, and understood what she was getting at. We were standing in the garden with two of the same person, or two people who smelled so much like each other as to be indistinguishable.
“You’re a deer,” the child said severely to Aunt Thompson.
“Isn’t this a paradox?” the human whispered out of the side of its mouth to me. “I don’t remember this happening to me! Aunt Lara’s garden was always the most boring place! There were never any fairies marching in out of the hedge!”
“There’s no such thing as paradoxes,” Mr. Jenkins said. “Things just happen, whether they make sense or not. And I’ll warrant you had an extremely overactive imagination as a child. Any number of things can slip past one’s notice in those circumstances.”
“Wait,” the child interrupted imperiously. “Are you me?” It inspected the older human with an expression that slowly moved from disapproval to interest to faint hope. “How do I shave all my hair without having anyone yell at me?” it wanted to know, after a long minute.
“I don’t know,” the human said, its voice increasingly bewildered. “You—I—we just do it, I suppose. You’ll stop caring after a while.”
“That sounds like a lie,” the child said suspiciously.
Aunt Thompson snorted. “And so it is, but on such lies worlds are made,” she murmured. “Childing, where is your uncle Hendrik?” she said more clearly.
A mulish expression contorted the small creature’s face. “I don’t know and I won’t tell you. He’s horrible.”
“Where is your cousin Dries, then?”
“Why do you want to know? He’s horrible as well.”
“In about thirty years, they are going to steal something from me,” Aunt Thompson said calmly. “I plan to stop it.”
“Wait—stop it how?” the adult human demanded. “And I’m not that old!”
“Where’s that bat-thing gone?” the child asked.
“Jenkins must have had the same idea about a minute before I did.” Aunt Thompson snorted hugely and tossed her antlers back, staring up at the iron sky. “He’s got the smell of the younger one already, so he’s several paces ahead of us.”
The adult human looked at her, then looked at the child, then turned in a full circle, looking behind it all the time, as though understanding were just out of its peripheral vision. “So how is he going to stop Dries from stealing your jewel in the future?” it finally demanded.
“He isn’t,” said Aunt Thompson. “I expect he’s gone to put the idea in our cousin’s head in the first place.”
“So he’ll look for the sand goblins to steal it for him when the time comes around?” I asked. “I suppose that’s clever of him.” I was not feeling particularly clever myself. Paradoxes aren’t really a thing in Lathustra, but being absurdly elaborate certainly is. I scratched my nose, as another thought occurred to me. “But how did my boss end up having the jewel for them to steal in the first place? Is Jenkins going to run over to the Yellow Earth after this to convince him to run a heist for a paperweight he can keep on his desk for thirty years?”
“Certainly not,” she said. “No sand goblin would have any luck getting into Lathustra without a specific invitation, and no entity of any sort would take anything from the Lady in the Oak Tree on the Cliff without her express permission.”
“What?” the human asked. I sympathized with this sentiment.
“You didn’t tell us that before,” I accused.
“I suppose,” Aunt Thompson trumpeted, after a long minute of consideration, “we’ve got to go put the jewel where he can find it.”
“But you were going to stop it being stolen only a moment ago!” the adult human cried in frustration. “Now you’re going to help him do it?”
“I don’t like Jenkins, but I’m not getting into a spat with him,” Aunt Thompson said composedly. “This is apparently a project of his. It’s only professional courtesy. We’ll make sure things take their course as they are trying their very best to do, and then when those things have got to where they’re going to be in the future I’ll step in as I meant to do originally.”
The human child’s eyes had been flashing back and forth between the three of us with increasing alacrity since the beginning of this exchange. “Right,” it broke in excitedly now. “So we’ve just got to go wherever that jewel is now and steal it ourselves so the thieves can steal it later! That’s brilliant!” Apparently it was very excited to start its criminal career at the earliest moment, and we were as good a gang as any. “I’m very small, so you can take me wherever it is, and I will sneak in and grab it, and no one would ever suspect anything. No one ever suspects children of doing important things,” it added, a touch bitterly.
“That’s a very good plan,” Aunt Thompson said. “But not quite necessary.”
“Why not?” the child asked indignantly.
Aunt Thompson reached up into her antlers and pulled out a large piece of translucent green stone that glowed gently around her hoof.