The Quidnunx59 min read
One: Bird Aptrick’s Word
Bird Aptrick said an awful word.
There are big curse words and little curse words in anybody’s language. A little cursing isn’t hardly cursing at all. A child could do it and everyone round the supper table would laugh, turn red, and stick a bun in that sour young mouth while secretly making a note to tell every one of their friends just what their beastly wee urchin had said last night on the subject of his pea soup.
This was not one of those. It was a big cursing. A beefy, grown-up cursing. The kind of cursing even a very tall man would have to do when everything in his whole world has gone dreadful and ghastly and wrong. Only a moment ago the evening was full up: cluttered with buttery bread and cheerful candles, four sisters, one still a baby, and one brother, with thick hair and pretty moles in the centers of their foreheads, lavender and thyme and hot peppers hanging to dry from the rafters, and pea soup with a hunk of pink ham the size of an apple floating in the green. Now the evening had nothing in it but Bird’s mother, Until Aptrick, standing in the doorway, her hunting gun still smoking, her clothes covered in dark blood.
And Bird Aptrick said an awful word. So would you. So would I.
“Tilly!” Bird’s father, Middle Aptrick, jumped up from the table, toppling the crock of soup and setting little Rarely to squalling and blubbering her small baby babble-curses. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” Until whispered. But it wasn’t the right sort of no to make anyone feel alright. Bird’s mother leaned her gun against the wall. Bird loved his mother’s gun. It had a big barrel like a trumpet’s bell and all sorts of colored beads and charms and carvings on its stalk. It smelled of burnt air and hot metal and a full table and mother-love. Mama had made it herself when she took her vows at the monastery. Only monks could be hunters in Frogskin Bridge. Meat was far too complicated for anyone else to be trusted with the getting of it. Bird knew his oldest sister, Glass, meant to take the muzzle as soon as she could, and he was glad. It meant Bird didn’t have to. He loved the forest, but not because it was full of food and exciting shadows. He loved it because it was never the same twice, and he loved it because no one could find him there.
Until’s hands were shaking. She sat down very determinedly on the floor and wrapped her long arms around her knees. Bird got to her first, hugging her hard and stroking her hair the way she had stroked his, had stroked Glass’s and Already’s and Thrice’s and Rarely’s hair, even though Rarely didn’t have much yet. But Aptricks are a quick crowd, and Bird had hardly got his mother in his arms before they all came falling in, afraid and shivery and full of soup and worry and questions. Middle had always known the trick of getting his arms around all his people at once, even though you wouldn’t think it was possible anymore on account of everyone growing and squirming and talking as fast as clouds skipping by and there being more of everyone than they’d started out with, him and Tilly, all those years ago when they were young and the mushrooms were ripe. So he did his trick and everyone settled in round each other in a great pile. Even the baby crawled up and got herself wedged between Thrice’s hip and Already’s shoulder. She hadn’t the first idea what was happening, but she knew, the way baby animals always know, that the big animals were upset and when the big animals are upset, you’d better snuggle in where it’s safe.
Bird reached round and squeezed Glass’s hand hard, twice. It was their signal. Once meant all good and all clear. Three times meant we’ll talk about this later when no one can hear us. Twice meant Help, I’m afraid. They had all sort of signals, being only eleven months apart yet five years older than the next Aptrick. By the time Thrice came along, Bird and Glass already ruled a secret kingdom of codes and signs, and, while new subjects were always welcome, the thrones were quite full, thank you.
Glass squeezed back twice. And then she drew a little x on the back of his hand with her pinky fingernail.
Bird sucked in his breath through his teeth. They’d invented that ages ago. Ages and ages. He remembered inventing it—which neither he nor Glass did, usually. Their secret language always seemed like wild violets they picked whenever they wanted something pretty—obvious, natural, just waiting to be saved in a pocket or a book. But Bird remembered the x. He had been lying with his sister on a hill almost, but not quite, inside the big, serious trees of the Fourpenny Woods, in the autumn when red was king. Red leaves, red rosehips, red dahlias, red squashes, red storm clouds.
“Do let’s invent a busk in case we should ever see one. Or hear one. Or think we have,” Bird remembered saying, rolling over on his stomach to pull up a rope of bittersweet berries and twist them round his forearm like a ruby bracelet. They had agreed last Christmas that even their secret code required a secret code word, or they would surely be found out and forced to spill the goods. They settled on busk, which wasn’t really a proper word as far as they knew, but was awfully fun to say.
“You’ve made a beggar of me!” cried Glass, giggling in the sun, her mouth turned bright gold from gobbling up wild cloudberries all morning. Bird and Glass always said this when they agreed on something, as they had heard their father say it over and over, every time he bought or sold anything on the Bridge, even if, especially if, wily old Middle Aptrick had come out far ahead in the bargain.
They’d thought hard about it, and by lunchtime Glass had won out, mainly by making the x on his hand harder than he’d made it on hers, and leaving a long red cut with her nail, which she was not at all sorry for, and called him a baby when he winced, even though he was older than her.
But they’d never gotten to use it. Not in all the years since.
Bird looked at the color of the blood on his mother’s hood. It wasn’t red at all, really. It was sort of burgundy-violet. Like new wine. And it smelled like one of those oranges with cloves stuck all over them that Papa put in the winter punch, the kind that had always looked strangely sinister to Bird, like a spiky mace disappointed to find itself floating in quince-gin and claret instead of sunk in some unsuspecting head. Bird bristled a little. He should have seen it first. He was older. But Glass had been going to the woods with their mother every day for a year now. She had shot things. She knew about blood. She knew what old stories look like when they turn real.
Bird knew what the x meant and he knew his sister was right.
It meant Quidnunx.
“Girls,” Until Aptrick said, wiping her eyes so no one would see her tears and be afraid, “go and open my good chest. We’ve got to get your brother ready.”
“Ready for what?” chirped Already, only seven years old and Bird was reasonably sure she was allergic to plain sentences. She’d never said anything that wasn’t a question since her first word, which was Up? and therefore sort of a question anyway.
“To get married,” sighed Middle Aptrick.
Bird squeezed his sister’s hand twice — frantic, hard, bone-bending squeezes. But she just looked at him helplessly. They’d never invented a busk for I don’t know.
Two: The Ballad of Unknown Jerome and Agatha Aboveground
Once, not awfully long ago, but neither awfully short ago, in fact, just the right span to be called Ago without offending propriety, a certain peculiar Forest fell in love with a deep, craggy Valley. The Forest was very dashing, full of extremely tall, thick trees and soft meadows and thorny brambles and a number of clever, bushy animals. The Valley was quite the catch as well, full of blue stones and clover and black hens and saffron flowers, as well as being well connected socially with the rain and the winter and the sturdy mountains.
The Forest and the Valley decided to settle down together and see what they might make between the two of them. They put their heads together and tinkered with the earth and the sky and the moon and the autumn and the spring, pottered about with mushy loam and rainstorms and exciting lichens and pitch-pine and maple and birch and both peach and pomegranate trees. They experimented rashly with a year boasting four hundred and sixty five entire separate days, rather than the usual number. They dabbled in badgers, hedgehogs, raccoons, bears both giant and pygmy, red, green, and blue-tailed deer, jackdaws, owls, parrots, cassowaries, flamingos, coots, herons. For a thrilling century, the Forest and the Valley were utterly fascinated by marsupials. Then, they grew sad for a long while because they did not live anywhere near the sea, yet both the Forest and the Valley dearly loved whales and anything with tentacles. They tried their mightiest to think of a way to entice even one whale to live on land and slurp mosquitoes out of the air like brine shrimp, but the whales said they would just get underfoot and trouble everyone.
These are the hobbies of Forests and Valleys, which are only a little bit like the hobbies of people.
And as often happens with old married folk who live far from the city, they became so entwined and cantankerous, so solitary and set in their ways, so stubbornly determined to have things their way and no one else’s, that they began to look and sound not very much at all like other forests and valleys, which was perfectly all right by them.
These are a few of the children the forest and the valley bore and raised together:
a sweet, red, thorny-tufted barley that caused dreams of falling
an agate that looked so much like the night sky that if you held it up to the stars on a clear night it would disappear
a peach with ruby flesh and seeds struck sparks when thrown against the blue valley stones
pumpkins the size of wild ponies that glowed when cut from the vine, growing hotter and hotter until they melted like lava over the table by the time the moon changed
a kind of kingfisher in which both the male and female sported brilliant rainbow feathers and black tails like tiny night-peacocks. Both could say three human words, though not the same three. The drake could chirp yes, buttermilk, and rum, while the hen could sing goodbye, peppercorn, and tiger.
a sort of badger shaped like a wombat but sporting a bright blue nose and a long skunky tail. It preferred to be called a Bunk. When startled, they danced wildly in order to appear rabid and not worth the trouble while spraying Bunk-musk, which smelled just like a certain men’s cologne popular in Paris, which to the poor creatures was the most frightening and aggressive scent they could imagine.
one hundred and six species of edible mushrooms found nowhere else and named as anyone names their sons and daughters: Simon the violet-frilled lacecap, Beatrice the emerald puffball, Hugo the fuchsia black-stalked truffle
But the Forest and the Valley could not be satisfied. The lives of forests and valleys are long and no true potterer ever really finishes her work. There is always some bigger, more difficult thing to bang together. As time skipped along like a stone over a pond, the Valley began to long for a village to keep and tend. It dreamed of talking creatures who would sow and reap and invent barns and bread and be belligerent drunkards. All the while, the Forest yearned after talking creatures as well, but no cheerful barn-builders. The Forest wanted wild bandits to sneak in its shadows and pounce joyfully and disdain both roofs and rules.
And so, the Forest and the Valley went each to their most secret workshops with their best and oldest tools, both saying to the other: I shall be late to summer, darling, don’t wait for me.
At midwinter, the Forest gave its love the village of Frogskin Bridge. The tiny hamlet sparkled with fresh roads that crossed neatly in the middle of town, blue-stone wells and walls, hedges, neat pens for the trapping of wild black chickens, seventeen huts pleasingly arranged in a pattern like a sunflower, and a little bright creek that, with luck, might grow up to be a river one day. Over the creek stretched a bridge of night-agate and green Beatrice puffballs growing through the cracks like holiday balloons.
And in the whistling, wildling snow, the Valley gave its beloved the Quidnunx.
The Forest clapped its hands in delight, crackling its branches against one another. The Valley sang with excitement, curling up the edges of its chasms.
If you went looking for the Forest or the Valley, or even the village of Frogskin Bridge nowadays, I am not at all sure what you would find. They are not in England. They are not in Finland. They are not in America or France or Australia or Russia or India or Argentina. They are somewhere between all those places, between and beside and beneath and beyond. And it is always in the between and beside and beneath and beyond that the most interesting things happen, where no one is looking but the stars.
For many years, Frogskin Bridge stayed bright and clean and empty. It waited in the nestle of the Valley like a flytrap flower, ready to snap its pretty, snug jaws around the only food it wanted: folk. The Valley never despaired. They would come. They would smell the tidy huts with four rooms each, the fat black chickens and their fat brown eggs, the deep, cool well set in the crossroads like a diamond in a ring, the white-washed mill whose wheel already turned invitingly through the creek which ran and played and whooped with good health and fishes and had gotten far too big for its banks already. They would hear, somehow, in the far distance, the melting of the giant, hot pumpkins in the full moon’s light, the crackling of the fiery peaches, the six collected words of the male and female kingfishers. They would smell the chartreuse-striped Oliver mushrooms that tasted so very like absinthe growing in the thatch of the roofs and the wild, musky fur of the bunks and bobcats, the wallabies and wildebeests, nosing in the leaves of the empty marketplace. People would come. It was only that people were sometimes slow and stubborn and did not like to believe in places very much different from the ones they knew.
All the while, the Quidnunx danced with the Forest.
Now, I shall have to spend some time telling you just what a Quidnunc is, for I am almost certain you have never seen one. If you have, you can skip ahead of this bit to the part that begins After a while … and I shan’t be at all angry. But I must attend to readers less worldly and experienced than you.
Quidnunx are part tufted owl, part woolly mammoth, part kangaroo, part orangutan, part polar bear, part moose, and part coconut — only they are quieter than foxes when they want hush and louder than marching bands when they want bombast. They are bigger than bears on hind legs reaching for beehives and can jump higher than that old beehive anyhow. They make nests like magpies or mynahs, nests of every shining thing they can snatch, and see in the shadows better than any cat. But though they are big they are sneaky. If you came upon one in the wood, you might walk right by, especially if the sun was out and bold. A quiet Quidnunc looks like an umbrella-shaped pile of old fur and leaves and moss. Perhaps a wild peony would be growing out of its head — Quidnunx stay still for a long time when they are thinking or playing Ginglymus, a sort of backgammon that is also a crossword puzzle that is also a pun-battle that they taught to the giant ring-tailed squirrels.
Quidnunx have fur like a patchwork quilt. Tufts and tails and puffs and pelts and fuzz and fleece! Streaks of ermine, stripes of mink, squares of snow tiger, swirls of lion and rabbit and stoat and lynx, bristles of housecat, brushy hedgehog, velvet wolf, woolly ram, spotted deer. Brown, black, grey, rust, gold, sable, a great, round motley autumn scruff. Some adventurous mosses have learned to live on a Quidnunc. The Quidnunx don’t mind. Bees come and rest on the moss and the odd peony, and they don’t mind that either, because bees are crunchable, like popcorn. And the Quidnunx do like to crunch. Their favorite things in the world are crunching, stealing, hiding, boxing, and talking to the moon. A Quidnunc’s teeth are terrifically long and tusky and sharp, the sort you see on skeletons in museums and have dreadful dreams about afterward.
A Quidnunc stands up slowly. She has a lot of body to unfold. First her arms open up — thick, shaggy bear-lion arms tipped with colorful claws. (In a pinch, you can always tell Quidnunx apart by their claws.) Then she stretches her neck up and peers out from her soft chest. She blinks her enormous two-iris-eyes in her wildcat-jack o’lantern face. Tall, punky tufts of hair like a horned owl twitch in the wind, checking for snacks and spies. Some have stubby antlers and horns, some have bony nubbles like crowns of river-rocks, some have wild stripes of electric blue or magenta, but all have tufts, and what grows on your head is to a Quidnunc what a surname is to us.
Then, our Quidnunc picks up her punch-bowl body in her arms, lifting her belly up so her feet can get free. Up she goes on one furry-hippopotamus foot and then the other, stretching out her springy knees. She shakes down her belly like a girl wiggling into a dress and makes the sound that Quidnunx make, which is called the thumpus. It’s as though she has a drum in her stomach and somebody is enthusiastically tossing rocks at the drumskin. Whack-whong, whack-whong, whong-wack. They can roar, too, and howl, and even carry a tune, but if you are within roaring range of a Quidnunc you have other worries. All this done, the Quidnunc can wander off to find trout or Roman coins or a bullfrog to play Houppelande with, which is like lacrosse but also like cricket, only with a deck of cards, four pairs of pink soapstone dice, and a bullfrog to lob from crosse to crosse.
A male is called a quire, a female is a quoth, their young are quodkins, and a group is a quiddity. In the mad dinner party called taxonomy, they sit somewhere between diprodontia and ursidae, and squabbles with felidae over the pepper grinder. I am telling you all this, and using Latin, which is very difficult, so that you will feel certain that Quidnunx are proper animals, as real as you or I or your pet dog.
After a while, the Valley began to suspect it was the Quidnunx keeping people away. No matter how well you set a table, no one will come to eat if a pack of lookie-loo monsters have their great fat noses pressed up against the windows. The Forest argued, quite reasonably, that as Quidnunx were already here and people were at this point mostly imaginary, the lookie-loos shouldn’t have to budge one little bit. Perhaps the Quidnunx might even move into the village and then they wouldn’t have to trouble with humans at all. The Valley made several rude noises and refused to speak to the Forest all winter long.
You must always beware if someone is giving you the silent treatment. Usually it means they are making a scheme. When a person is not so busy talking they have ever so much more time to think. The Valley did not give up, nor did it ask the Forest’s leave any longer. Instead, the Valley did two things, one of which was an excellent notion, and the other was the sort of thing only a crowd of great grassy hills and the hollow below them would think was at all helpful.
Having gotten so wonderfully good at mushrooms, the Valley quietly invented a new one, named it Agatha, sent it out like a clever little dog, and told it very sternly to fetch. Now, the secret of mushrooms (and many other things) is that the bit you see sticking up out of the good black mud, the bit you slice up and fry in a pan with thyme and butter, is only the flower. The briar of the mushroom goes on for miles underground, silent and delicate, nosing through the dark like a dreaming worm. The Valley told the Agatha mushroom to stretch out as far as it could, as far as it took to find people, which were animals who walked on two legs and had no tails or very much fur and whose favorite things were building and talking, and only then should it start pushing up its thyme-and-butter parts into the air. Off went Agatha, out of the Valley and through the Forest, growing as fast as a mushroom can, which is not so fast, but not so slow, either, stopping every so often to listen for talking and building and walking on two legs but no tail.
Finally, the mushroom thought it heard something, the right sort of something, and proudly pushed up its fungus-fruits out of the crumbly, cakey earth. It had very good hearing, for just then a man was walking home carrying a basket full of stonemason’s tools, since he was a stonemason, along with two rabbits, some bitter greens and parsnips and crabapples, and three long silver trout for his supper. Now, this happened so long ago that no one in Frogskin Bridge can remember exactly what the man’s name was, even though plenty of people would like to say they were his great-great-great-great grandchildren, so when this story gets its telling once a year, everyone calls him Unknown Jerome and gets on with the tale. I shall do the same, because I do not remember, either.
Unknown Jerome could not explain what he saw when Agatha came sprouting up, but he liked it very much. Agatha Underground is a wild sort of hot crackling blue with mottled dark mackerel patterns all over its lacy miles. But Agatha Aboveground has button-caps shaped like perfect, tiny houses. Their roofs are green, their walls are purple, and their windows are orangey-yellow so that they look as though someone very small is happily living away inside. And they popped out of the ground, hundreds of hundreds of them, right in front of Unknown Jerome, glittering and glowing in the soft blue heart of the evening like fairy lanterns. They lead off through the woods where Unknown Jerome had been hunting. He had hunted there most of his life, so he knew very well that nothing like this had grown there before. Unknown Jerome looked around to see if anyone else had seen this strange thing so that they could shake their heads and stroke their beards together. But he was alone. Now, some folk would be frightened. Perhaps they would try to stamp out the mushrooms or burn them out. But Agatha Underground had gotten lucky. Unknown Jerome was a peculiar fellow. He was not frightened at all. He laughed. He looked down and judged his basket to have most of the things he needed to keep being alive, thought about his empty stone house with no wife or children to make stone into a statue of happiness, and started walking, following the mushroom-houses into the wild deep dusk.
Agatha Aboveground had blossomed all at once, miles upon miles of button-cap huts with purple walls and green roofs and glowing orangey-yellow windows. As Unknown Jerome walked the long, long way from the place where he had hunted all his life to the Valley and the Forest and the Bunk and the talking kingfishers and the agates like the night sky and the huge, toothy Quidnunx, he met others, some traveling toward home, some traveling away from it, some just wandering, for there are always wanderers who love their wandering and hold it dear. And a few of these decided to follow the mushroom-path with Unknown Jerome and see where it ended up. Nobody remembers their real names, either. The Mysterious Mummers joined with their wagon full of puppets and costumes and masks when the woods turned into a warm desert. The Unnameable Cowherd, and her cows, came along when the desert became a long, grassy plain. The Obscure Bandit put all her weapons in a locked chest and bore it on her back all the way through the swamps and sticky, stinging fens. The Anonymous Beermaker rolled his barrels ahead of him like sled-dogs when snow fell on the swamps and they all had to travel on skates, peering through the ice for a reassuring glimpse of the mushroom-houses still glowing softly beneath the cold.
When they came, at last, to the end of Agatha Aboveground, they saw a valley as cozy as a hearth spread out before them. Everything just as they would have it if they could have dreamed up a home. Empty houses ready for a long-earned sleep, a working well, a fine bridge, chickens already in their pens and laying squawkily. But the Valley’s second grand idea to entice folk into its arms nearly ended the village of Frogskin Bridge before it began.
The Valley knew a great deal about chickens, you see. It knew that if one’s chickens are reluctant to lay, you ought to place a pale rock that looks more or less like an egg where the daft birds ought to be nesting. Seeing the egg-shaped rock, they will think to themselves: ah, someone has already laid an egg here, which means it is a good and safe place for my fat, feathery rump to wiggle down. The Valley reasoned that people needed the same sort of encouragement before they would do any sort of wiggling of their own. So it pushed up its beautiful blue stones, not so differently than Agatha pushing up its button-cap houses, in a ring all round the village. The Valley twisted and bulged and burst its stones until each of them had a human face, a happy, welcoming human face that would tell any person that this was a good, safe place fit for eggs and rumps alike.
The trouble was, the Valley had very little idea of what a human looked like. It had only heard other Valleys and Forests and Mountains and Dells and a few Tundras whispering about them. So the grand faces the Valley was so proud of did not look very much at all like people. They soared into the air, huge, with cheekbones like knife-edges, noses that stuck out like beaks, ears like wings, eyes that took up half their stony faces and always looked shocked and scandalized by some blue-stone gossip they had just heard. But the fruits and flowers woven into their hair was perfect, for the Valley knew very well what they looked like. Somehow, the Valley had gotten the mouths right. But a right mouth in a face all fantastically wrong looks even worse than a warped one, and all these things together caused Unknown Jerome and all the rest of them to scream bloody terror at the peaceful town and the gentle clouds and the saffron flowers who had put on their smartest leaves and petals for the occasion.
But Unknown Jerome noted that the faces did not seem to be able to come alive, nor did their mad, moony eyes follow you when you moved. The Unnameable Cows seemed undisturbed. The woods practically boomed with game. The huts shone clean and bright—big versions of the miraculous mushrooms they had followed for so long. Unknown Jerome meant to stay. As soon as someone got around to making a loom they could throw cloth over the stone faces if it still bothered everyone so much. This was judged great good sense, and a wandering, just like that, turned into a village. They would be safe here, and happy, and nothing would trouble them.
Of course, none of them had met a Quidnunc yet.
Three: Book Brownbread’s Song
Book Brownbread lived on a bridge.
Not under a bridge, like a troll, or near a bridge, like a ferryman’s daughter, but on the eastward slope of Frogskin Bridge, in a modest green puffball with six rooms and a little garret at the top, which was all hers. She had raced both her brothers Upon and Away for the garret, and twins always cheat, so the fact that she careened down the westward side of the bridge an aroused Bunk’s length ahead of them should tell you just how fast Book could go, when she wanted to go, which was only sometimes.
The creek that tumbled through the Valley had indeed grown up into a river, and grown up so wide and fast and well that it got a name: the Longago. Frogskin Bridge once stretched across the Longago, but you couldn’t say that anymore. Nowadays the Bridge is a hill with a hole in it, and through the hole roars the Longago. And if creeks can grow up, bridges can, too. The emerald Beatrice puffball mushrooms swelled bigger and bigger until the thread-merchants and cheese-hawkers and perfumers and winetraders and jewelmongers and toymakers who came every day to buy and sell everything they could think of, and then three things more, on the bright, wet cobblestones of the bridge realized how much easier it would be to just move into the thick green balloons and never leave. Naturally, they ran out of puffballs quickly. Between the mushrooms, Unknown Jerome’s descendants built spindly, madcap towers and houses and guildhalls and taverns. The stonemasons got quite over-excited over the whole thing, and used every bit of architectural nonsense they had ever learned, the fancier the better, with the result that the Bridge is a great bristling zoo of buttresses, flying and otherwise, pinnacles, trefoils, clerestories, gargoyles, finials, arched gables, lancet windows, spandrels, vaults, stained glass, rose windows, colonnades, and pillars of every style. When even that got too crowded, they kept building higher and higher, adding new towers and spires and terraces on top of the old ones, throwing new bridges — bridges upon bridges! — between the houses so that you could walk from the bookbinder’s chapel to the greengrocer’s transept without once touching the bustling street below.
Book Brownbread didn’t live in a transept or a chapel. Rich girls lived there, and boys who could have two copies of a book if they wanted. Her family had a puffball because Great-Granny Brownbread had been a wonderfully shrewd lady. She’d guessed how the Bridge would go and staked out a big thick Beatrice before anybody thought to charge rent for them. And back then, she wasn’t a Granny. You simply did not argue with Unlike Brownbread when she called something hers, or you got the business end of her favorite Sunday truncheon. Thanks to that truncheon, Book and her family lived comfortably, though not finely. Book and her brothers sold fruit with their mother, Loud Brownbread. Their father, Nowhere, made puppets on the green puffball balcony, which served as laboratory and shop all together. They were not the best puppets you could buy on Frogskin Bridge. They were not the worst. If you wanted a marionette that looks so real you’d almost ask it what it fancied for lunch if you weren’t careful, Nowhere Brownbread was not your man. Nor did he have any interest in making dog puppets with real fur and such sweet glass eyes you’d love it like a real pet. He made what he liked and hung it off the balcony when it was done. A tall girl walking the Bridge might feel the scarlet velvet feet of a feathered battle-mongoose with six tiger’s eyes in his checkered belly brush her hair. If she wanted it, Nowhere would sell his mongoose, fussing over its racing stripes. If not, she could jump in the Longago as far as he was concerned.
Thus, puppets did not bring much into the household but squares of oddcloth and glass eyeballs. The fruit-barrow Book and her brothers wheeled out onto the Bridge every day put candles in their holders, roasts in their pans, linen on their beds and their backs. Loud Brownbread had a voice like a burst of fireworks, sudden and bright and deafening. Though each of her children had been born quiet as moonlight, she taught them to holler first thing. To holler, to bellow, to sing, to howl, to boom. From the belly, not the throat, from the bones and the big beating of the blood. Eggplants, blueberries, blackapples, coconuts, figs, greengages, persimmons, grapes, lemons, lingonberries, muskmelons, yams, and squashes. A patch of Brownbread cousins grew them in the shadow of Grufferface, the great blue-stone statue that looked as though it was about to holler out a lecture on coming home late at night. Loud and Book and Upon and Away sold them, singing all the day up and down the Bridge: two for a penny, six for a milkcap, a bushel for a crown, life is sweet when your bread is brown!
Book Brownbread wore her brightest clothes when she pushed the barrow. She’d sewn them herself out of just about everything—scraps from the brocadiers and leather-cutters’ trash-heap, mostly gold grommets for which she’d traded a basket of her own raspberries to a draper’s rebellious son, ribbons for her dark hair from every birthday present she’d ever got, shoes from the dancers’ lodge when the summer shows had done, re-soled with cast-off puppet-legs and puppet-tummies and puppet-noses. For every time her father finished a puppet, she’d ask:
“Might I have a bit of the left-asides? For my collection?”
And feeling proud that one of his children was proving nearly as odd as himself, Nowhere would turn over piles of glass eyes, tufts of fur dyed magenta with beetroot, glass garnets, satin rope, mounds of fabric cheap and grand, in squares and strips no bigger than her palm. As Book grew she added more and let out seams until, at fifteen, she had a barrow-dress you could see all the way from Grufferface, coming up over the peak of the Bridge like a rainbow sun.
She was wearing it when Glass Aptrick came to call. But she wasn’t working, not particularly.
Oh, she had her barrow piled high with the right sorts of things for October: pomegranates and Brussels sprouts, blackberries and beets, butternuts and cranberries and leeks and blistering hot peppers and pumpkins that hadn’t started to glow just yet. And she was certainly singing, in her pleasant milkrummy low and loud voice: two for a penny, six for a milkcap, a bushel for a crown, life is sweet when your bread is brown! But Book Brownbread wasn’t working. No matter how nice the fruit or how good the opportunities for snatching shreds of satin from the laundries, hawking sweetness up and down the Bridge was never quite enough to occupy her mind. So, on Tuesdays, she let it out to run and play. On Tuesdays, Book barrowed by herself. Upon and Away had their pumpkin-handling lessons (for a fruit-seller is also a lamp-lighter in Frogskin Bridge, and pumpkins must be handled more delicately than any gas flame) and Loud went out to the Grufferface Farm for new stock and cousin-handling, not less volatile than gourds.
It had all started with the penny wonderfuls: little stories printed on beet-skin paper with pictures in beet-root ink, so that the whole tale, small enough to hide in your apron if anyone was coming, was red, red, red. Pale red pages, dark red words. All the Bridgers were mad for them. Pudding & Sons had the best ones and everyone knew it, mostly because Seldom Pudding could draw like a mole could dig. They were very secretive about who wrote them, however, and the mystery made the stories better, somehow. By noon on any Tuesday Frogskin Bridge exploded with red flags as everyone stood in the street to read. The other fruit-sellers read with one hand and bartered with the other, crying their wares out of one side of their mouth while the other mouthed the latest adventures in rapturous excitement.
Book, despite her namesake, couldn’t afford them. Not every week. Not enough to keep up with Quidnunc’s Quarry. Occasionally, Mama would come home with one glorious burgundy broadsheet for all three of them to share. Upon, Away, and Book would climb into each others’ laps so they could all read at once how the daring young inventor/gymnast Halfway Sapsago hunted Quadrillion, the Quarrelsome Quidnunc from the Carnival Woods, seeking revenge for the death of his innocent family, having sworn to rid the Woods of monsters once and for all and bring home his kidnapped bride from the terrifying Quatrain, a Quidnunc palace of untold treasure. But they only got a taste every few months, and so it was all really very hard to follow when they’d missed the whole bit about Halfway taming the kingfishers so that they told him the way to the hermit called No. 6 Buttermilk, who in turn gave the earnest hero a set of wings made out of licorice roots, and thus it seemed to the Brownbread children as though all of the sudden Mr. Sapsago was flying about for no reason whatsoever. Upon, being very sensitive about the rules of narrative being broken, had burned the last one, and that was the end of penny wonderfuls altogether.
Unable to read and sell at the same time like everyone else, Book, only on Tuesdays and at first only very quietly, began to change her selling song. Two for a penny, six for a milkcap, a bushel for a crown, the world is bright when your bread is brown! It wasn’t much of a change. She kept it in the right rhythm. But it was something other than the first song she’d ever known, and it excited her.Soon it was: joy for a penny, sunshine for a cap, a kiss for a crown, one red cherry and you’ll forget to frown! And that was exciting, too. But not as exciting as the crisp, foggy evening, just as the hot pumpkins were beginning to glow on all the balconies and terraces, when her funny magpie-mind felt wicked and wily and sang out to the alleyways: hearts for a penny, souls for a milkcap, forgiveness for a crown, the dead come near when the leaves turn brown! A passing hop-and-barley-man jumped nearly out of his bones, gave her a stern that’s-not-nice-for-young-ladies glare, shuddered, and trundled on up the upward side of the Bridge.
Imagine! Book Brownbread had made someone shudder! With just the words out of her mouth! Oh, but now she wanted to do it again! Could she? Could she make things other than shudders? What if she tossed off the old rhythm completely? Oh, but it was a good rhythm, really, old and sure and it had taken good care of her. Book began to make her selling-songs into story-songs, and no one told on her when Loud Brownbread came home from the cousin-farm with new fennel and jackfruit. Soon, she sold more on Tuesdays than the rest of them managed the whole rest of the week.
Glass Aptrick came to call on a Tuesday. She waited until Book had got to the end of a verse before she interrupted, for she kept her manners very polished and tidy.
“ ‘… come to the Wood at Midnight,’ said the Brave Bunk to the Fool, ‘and I shall show you secrets and tigers and jewels!’ ”
Glass cleared her throat. “Miss Book.”
“Oh!” laughed Book, startled out of her song before she could quite decide whether the Brave Bunk meant to leave the Fool to be eaten by Quidnunx or not. “I’m sorry, Glass, I didn’t see you! Have you come for the plums? They’re very good this week. White and red both.”
Book quite liked Glass Aptrick. They went to school together at the Doppelbock, the great old barrel-shaped schoolhouse nestled in where the river curved into Pufferside. Pufferface, the statue whose cheeks ballooned out like a terrified horn-player, stared right into the upperclassmen’s window as though it meant to blow them over the mountains and away. Glass was a year younger than Book. She always had dried venison to share after lessons and could recite all sixty-eight verses of The Complaint of the Bunk to the Blacksmith. Book loved that poem like a second dessert, but she could only ever remember forty verses or so. Glass looked a great deal like her brother—the same bourbon-colored hair and greenish-hazel eyes and moles on her neck. Book rather quickly shuttered thoughts of the moles on Bird Aptrick’s neck. There was no use in it. He was Melancholy’s sweetheart. Book felt that was only right and fair. Melancholy Pudding, the beautiful publisher’s daughter, who could do sums as fast as she could take a breath—that was just the sort of girl you’d sing into a love story with a boy like Bird. You couldn’t get upset with the world when it behaved like a story. You could only read as fast and hope the end didn’t come too quick.
“I’m afraid not, Book,” Glass sighed. Her big eyes filled with tears. She looked down, fidgeting with the knots on her hunting belt, and two tears pocked onto the cobblestones. “I need a crown of plenty. A … a good one. I have money. Blood oranges, I think, and trumpet vines, red dahlias and chrysanthemums and … and some bittersweet berries, too. Black ribbon and saffron. Maybe some frangipani and moonflowers. And cloudberries. There have to be cloudberries.”
Book squeezed her friend’s shoulder. It seemed the right thing. You couldn’t smile while someone else was crying, but Book couldn’t imagine why a crown of plenty would make anyone cry. She’d made dozens of them herself and she always loved the work, weaving everything together so that it looked as though it had grown that way in the first place, singing happiness and luck and patience into the knots.
“I’d be happy to make it, Glass. Happy as sunshine. Who’s it for? Who’s getting married?”
“Bird!” cried Glass Aptrick, and barked out a horrid, sharp sob. “He’s got to marry that thing before the moon goes dark.” She shoved her hands into her hair and snagged them there, yanking her skull back in helpless fury, looking up through the towers and spires and gargoyles of the dizzying Bridge. She crossed the middle and third fingers together on her right hand, but Book could not know this meant: I hurt and I don’t want to anymore. “And all I can do is make him pretty.”
Four: The Talking Woods
Quidnunx are cunning, enormous, ferocious, rude, quick-tempered, greedy libertines, robbers, and tricksters. Any wise sort would stay well enough away from them. Live and let live, they in their territory and we in ours.
The trouble is, Quidnunx are also delicious.
Humans did not bother to note down the name of the first hunter who killed a Quidnunc, turned it into steaks and roasts and cutlets, and set the whole village to thirsting after more. Nor did they jot out the name of the beast while they were making beast-broth and hanging monster-mutton out to dry.
But the Quidnunx did. They are very fond of jotting, as a rule. Her name was Coyly Grumble, she had red hair and hated tea no matter how much cream you put in and her big round nose always somehow made her look like she was happy even when she wasn’t. Coyly was born in Frogskin Bridge, one of the first babies who hadn’t been born somewhere else. You can tell by her name. When Unknown Jerome and the others came to the town that had waited so long for them, they immediately started to name things, which people do so love to do. But they quickly discovered all the usual sorts of names had been taken by the one hundred and six species of edible mushrooms and also by the Bunk, who were very possessive about them. So, as a gesture of neighborliness, the people of Frogskin Bridge gave their children names nobody had ever thought to give to poor, unsuspecting infants before. (The Quidnunx had done this for ages, but no one was much in the habit of asking Quidnunx names back then.) Finally, each of the first families took a particular mushroom as their crest, the way lords and ladies in Europe used to do with an alarming number of birds and lilies and fish. They still have not run out quite yet. Every house in Frogskin Bridge has a wooden sign showing their particular mushroom, which the Valley thinks is very sweet, and the Forest thinks is awfully tawdry. Eventually, some old codger invented a kind of astrology out of the whole business, and folk get rather peculiar about the mushroom they were born to.
And so, Miss Coyly Grumble, whose name as really rather plainer than you might think, was hunting green-tailed deer. She’d already caught a couple of hares and a Bunk in her clever traps and, as would be pointed out in very loud voices later, didn’t really need any more meat, who did she think she was? Searching for better and quicker prey, for a hunter always likes a dish best when it nearly got away, Coyly ventured deep into the Fourpenny Woods, a name so new the trees hadn’t yet heard the news. She said the Quidnunc tried to steal her horse and her sweetheart-ring. She had every right, she said.
The Quidnunc’s name was Rigmarole. Having never been shot by anything before, he didn’t know what to do when Coyly’s arrow hit him, so he died. I shall not tell you about the things a hunter does in order to turn a creature into pieces that can be cooked and baked and roasted. It is too grim and messy. Later on, you would hate me for it. Coyly shared her victory with the whole village. After all, there was so much! Every soul in Frogskin Bridge could eat their fill for a week and still have sandwiches come Sunday. Feasting tables groaned at the crossroads, (newly christened the Claret Cross), fresh thick milk, hot cider. They poured out the very last of the old wine and the very first of the new beer and hung garlands of zinnias on the bluestone well (now called the Very Well, as most folk answered thus when asked how they felt these days). And when they put their tinkered forks, piled high with Quidnunc stew, into their mouths, everyone groaned altogether.
They had never tasted such sweet, savory, delicate, wild, and sharp yet soft and mellow and rich meat in all their lives. It filled them up more profoundly than beef, made a better gravy than goose, a more sophisticated drumstick than chicken. They felt strong and awake and starving for more, not because it did not satisfy, but because suddenly, nothing else could.
Humans are quick-tempered, rude, ferocious, cunning, modestly-sized, greedy libertines, robbers, and tricksters. Any wise sort would stay well enough away from them. Live and let live, they in their territory and we in ours.
The trouble is, humans are also delicious.
The Quidnunx came to town on a holiday. They hadn’t planned it that way, but when they learned about calendars later, they thought it was a pretty good joke. They came at First Frost, when the leaves of the trees still glow red and orange and gold, but rimmed with silver frost, like young ladies putting on their first diamonds for their first ball. The new ice was not yet strong enough for skating, but it felt wonderful to crunch it underfoot while dancing down the creek bed, mugs of hot sour gooseberry toddy in one gloved hand, lover or child or friend in the other. Often Aptrick, Bird’s grandmother, I’ve forgotten how many times great, played her famous one-man-band, banging drumbeats with her knees and blowing three oboes at once while squeezing a concertina. Studied Brownbread, Book’s something-great-grandfather, finished the frosting on his beautiful cakes, cleverly baked in the shapes of the twenty old stone sourpusses that they’d all grown very fond of by now. He and his wife, Keepup, and those of his sons that could be bothered carried them, one by one, to the Very Well for the Midnight Bonfire and Pastry Contest. Thoroughly Pudding was only three. He rode on his mummy’s strong shoulders, begging for a story, the same one as last night please, Mum, he’ll be as good as grapes if you do. Coyly Grumble was entirely toddied already. At sunset, the mayor, George Broom, (he’d refused to give up his name to a “damned side dish,” but relented when his daughters came, saying he figured he’d better set his girls up right “before all the adverbs get used up”) had crowned her Frostfrau and Knife of Midnight. Laughing in Onpurpose Lob’s arms, Coyly slipped in the slushy river-mud and fell, splashing muck all over her blue sash and the Frostfrau night-agate crown. She laughed harder, her face red, her nose joyful. She’d be the first to cut into the Quidnunc pies at the Bonfire, if she could hold the sword. The hunting had gone so well. Coyly had brought down three more herself. Every day parties rode out with ribbons in their hair. Quidnunx were big but lord, they were stupid and slow.
Coyly Grumble loved First Frost. She’d come to all five, since old Lizbel the Mummer, one of the last of the Agatha gang, had, after years of mostly napping, gotten one last brilliant idea and promptly died from the shock of it. As Coy lay back in the freezing earth, her hair trailing in the creek, the slow water trying valiantly to run away from the frost, she hoped the holiday would stick. Lizbel would like that. But you never knew, with these things.
Quidnunx have excellent timing. All robbers do. So good that no one could possibly misunderstand why they came. Ten Quidnunx came out of the Fourpenny Woods—three and a third times as many as you should care to see together in all your days. They walked so quiet that no one saw them, though they stood taller than all the houses, than the new school, than the wheat-tower Hindsight Gudgeon had just finished building, even with Frippery Sloe’s grassheart gargoyle on top, its upstretched claws full of loaves and cakes. No one saw them until Coyly Grumble saw them. Until Coyly Grumble, still full of toddies and giggling at a joke Onpurpose had whispered in her ear, heaved up the Obscure Bandit’s stolen szabla sword with two tourmalines in the hilt. When the Bandit died, she made them all promise it would never cut anything but pastries again. Coyly would probably have made liars of all those sad faces at the Obscure Bandit’s deathbed, if not for Onpurpose Lob’s joke. When she turned her head to laugh and show him how her eyes could sparkle when she looked at him, the Quidnunx fell on her and gobbled her up. Because of her joyful nose, even when she looked the Quidnunx in the eye and screamed, Coyly looked, somehow, happy. But she wasn’t.
The avenging quiddity got Onpurpose almost by accident, since he’d stood so close to his girl. The thumpus bonged and sounded in their bellies. They threw back their manes at the moon and howled, they ate the mayor George Broom and Keepup Brownbread, the charcoaler Yet Marmalade and the miller Unpleasant Bock, together with a brace of his friends, they pummeled the half-frozen ground with their hippopotamus-feet, they ripped up the new apricot trees like daisies, they devoured the beekeeper Susan Frumenty, the dovekeeper Ichabod Arent, and the innkeeper Untoward Cask, they punched the Very Well until it wept, they gulped down the fishmonger Spurious Tealeaf, the ironmonger Vainglorious Plait, the cheesemonger Bruno Stout, and the gossipmonger Bylaws Pudding, though her boy Thoroughly only lost his left hand. They scooped up, tenderly, miserably, the Quidnunx pies and Quidnunx sausages, the racks of barbecued Quidnunx ribs and crocks of Quidnunx-and-potato soup, the Quidnunx Wellington and Croque Quidnunx, the tureens of Quidnunx Bourguignon, the Quidnunx quiche and Quidnunx kabobs. They cradled the First Frost feast in their furry arms and whimpered, moaned, keened, wailed, shook, hissed at the village that was once Frogskin Bridge, and bolted back to the Fourpenny Woods.
But when the ten grieving Quidnunx had huddled into the deeps of the forest again, into home and hearth as a Quidnunc wants it, when they had buried the pies and the sausages and the quiche and the kabobs, all the Quidnunx agreed that they had never tasted such savory, delicate, sweet, sharp, and bitter yet silken and melting and spicy meat in all their lives. Those Bocks and Puddings and Stouts and Brownbreads and Frumenties had filled them up more profoundly than Bunk, made a better gravy than owl, a more sophisticated drumstick than armadillo. They felt awake and strong and starving for more, not because it did not satisfy, but because suddenly, nothing else could.
Two hunting parties met on the edge of the wood, where the pines and larches become farms and towering, bug-eyed stone faces. The band from Frogskin Bridge wore mourning black. They carried bows and quivers and knives and blowdarts and traps with bronze teeth. Their horses had leather strapped round their bellies so no claw could get at their insides. The hunters’ eyes sunk down into dark circles, red and sore from many funerals. The Quidnunx brought no weapons nor horses—they had their jagged razor teeth and long bearish claws. They hadn’t bothered with armor, but a Quidnunc never goes out without dressing up. The quoths wore belts of wagon axles and lost brooches and the new milkcap coins Mayor Broom had commissioned from the Plait foundry. The quires wore great, blood-bright poppies in their hair and wild stripes of sap-paint on their pelts.
Each of them stared furiously at the other. Then guiltily. Then they didn’t want to stare at all, but looked at their feet or the sky or something under their fingernails.
“I want to eat you,” said the biggest Quidnunc, who was called Catchpenny and had two nubby green antlers on her head.
“I want to eat you, too,” said the leader of the hunting party, who was called Idem Arent, Ichabod’s quiet daughter who loved her father like a lost dove, the father still, very likely, being digested by one or several of the beasts before her.
“It’s not personal,” said a Quidnunc called Inglenook, though it was, really. Idem was Rigmarole’s mate. They had collected dried out speckled Frederick mushrooms together, hundreds, and made a mush under the spring stars, which is what Quidnunx call magic you can keep for later. They’d bottled one cupful for every trick they’d yet to play on the other.
“No, it’s not personal,” said Idem, though it was, really. The doves hadn’t stopped crooning and shrieking since her father died. They sounded like the inside of her.
Sometimes — not very often, mind you — alive things can look in front of them and behind, see how badly, how really wretchedly, they are about to muck it all up, and just decide not to. They can see how wrong they were, up until this very minute, bloodily determined to put their feet, shake their heads, and say wasn’t that a near miss? Good job we turned out to be so clever and level-headed and the good kind of cowardly or else who knows what would have happened?
Which is just how Idem Arent and Catchpenny sat down in a little clearing in the sugar maples and hazelnut saplings and giant baobabs with all their friends and made a treaty instead of eating each other. The other hunters, Brownbreads and Frumenties and Plaits and Aptricks and Brooms, pulled woolen blankets out from beneath their horses saddles to save everyone’s knees. Catchpenny put one foot on a blue and brown plaid. It disappeared under her toes. They shared food — which wasn’t half as good for the humans as a bite of Quidnunc popover would have been, or half as nice for the Quidnunx as a bit of Marmalade on Brownbread. Idem gave Catchpenny the necklace she wore, her mother’s, a gold chain with a jet carved like a very loving, gentle pig, the big grey furry ones the Unnameable Cowherd had brought over the plains and the deserts. Catchpenny gave Idem a set of Houppelande dice she had stuck in her fur.
In the end, it took them two hours. The treaty was very simple. Good ones always are. The Bridgers wrote it out on parchment; the Quidnunx carved it onto three gnarled, but willing, baobab trees. Both agreed to be bound by it until after supper, the last nap’s wakeup, and the end of the universe. You can still go and see it, if you like. Schoolchildren go and visit once a year, every year, so that they can yawn and pinch their friend when she isn’t looking and pay no attention whatever to the claw-drawn letters gouged into the bark:
DON’T BOTHER US AND YOU WON’T GET BOTHERED.
IF YOU WANT TO BORROW SOMETHING, JUST ASK.
THOU SHALT NEVER EAT ANYTHING THAT TALKS.
This kept the peace for a long, long time.
But not forever.
The Quidnunx say they had nothing to do with it, but you can’t believe anything a Quidnunc says. They are just ever so good at loopholes and the mischief you can make in them. However it happened, within a decade or two, almost every sort of animal in the forest had learned, mysteriously, to talk in full, complete, and often reasonably elegant sentences. Except the kingfishers, who clung to the six precious, hard-earned words they’d learned when everything in the world began, and the deer, who could never remember if you had to have your mouth open or shut for talking, and anyway, they thought it was a fad and soon enough everyone would get back to keeping their thoughts to themselves.
This is why Until Aptrick spent her youth in a monastery, studying endless books of vivisection and linguistics. Memorizing the eaten and the safe and not once mixing them up. Being introduced socially to chipmunks, raccoons, giant tuft-ear squirrels, groundhogs, beavers, wallabies, cassowaries, Bunks, lemurs, lynxes, foxes, a thousand songbirds, even a jaguar who had come visiting his mountain lion cousins and decided to stay. All so that she would not break the treaty and accidentally kill something that could call for its mother before it died.
Five: The Reading of the Bunk
Until Aptrick brushed out her son’s hair. He had lovely hair, she’d always said so. So had everyone else. Bird was one of those boys who could turn brushing his hair out of his eyes into a promise, or an apology, or an invitation, or an inside joke, depending on who he was brushing his hair out of his eyes for. Tilly and Mids had often lain in bed when they couldn’t sleep, when the summertime was too hot or the rain too loud, twining their fingers together in the pumpkinlight and playing the game parents in a little village often play: guessing who their children would turn into when they grew up. Glass was easy. She would hunt, she had always wanted to hunt, you couldn’t really stop her if you wanted to. She’d been sneaking after their old calico Tessy since she was three, throwing nets over her, scooping her up when she’d just gotten a good nap going, coaxing the poor creature into her room with a tomcat-blind made of teatowels and catnip. Tilly couldn’t imagine her marrying anybody. Mids thought she’d find a butcher’s boy to clean her kills and they’d get nice and fat on chops.
“I think Already might tell fortunes one day,” Until mused. “She does so love to stare at the soup-leavings and waggle her eyebrows.”
Thrice wanted to haggle like her father, to buy and sell until the sun burnt out, so Mids felt certain she’d marry up, maybe even into the Arents or the Brooms, if they only let her broker the deal herself. Rarely might grow up to be a tugboat for all they could tell from her brand new little scrunched up face.
And Bird? Who would dare place bets?
Bird loved everyone except three people, one of which his parents didn’t know about. Everyone certainly didn’t love Bird — he was too talkative for that, too much of a know-it-all, too stubborn, too hard to keep still. And he didn’t love everything — he thought those penny wonderfuls were dreadfully dull and he wouldn’t touch a dish with garlic in no matter how anyone else might exclaim over it. He split his time very democratically between his sister, the Fourpenny Woods, the Doppelbock school and the Bridge. It wasn’t that Bird didn’t show any interest in anything, Tilly always said, but that he showed too much in everything, and never could stay still for long, even to finish a book or an apprenticeship or a girl. Oh, he loved Melancholy now, but Mids didn’t think it would last. Melancholy could stay still professionally. Middle Aptrick had been just the same sort of boy once. Girls liked him the way they liked horses, instinctively, boisterously, unguardedly. All his friends had been girls; still were, mostly. In the end, though, he’d wanted the one who talked to him like one horse to another, and he thought Bird would be the same.
“I’ll put a jar of pennies on him hiring on with the Mummers,” Mids said, sleepily winding his wife’s hair round his fingers. “He’ll want the Bridge in the end. He’ll want the excitement. Old Sclafferface won’t do for much longer.” The statue nearest them always looked as though it had just taken a good, hard slap to the face. They lived so near, in fact, so almost in the Woods, that morning came an hour later than usual in the Aptrick house. They had to wait til old Sclaffer’s shadow moved to put the kettle on and rouse the babies. “We’ll be going to see him play the biggies — Unknown Jerome and King Cutlassfish and Pericles — by the time he’s twenty.”
“His Pudding girl is so pretty. She’s got manners like a baroness. Don’t you like her?”
“Sure, Foxface,” Middle said, falling asleep already. She liked Foxface best of all the pet names he’d tried. “I like her fine.”
They might have asked Glass what sort of man Bird was inching toward. She might even have told them. But that would spoil the game.
And besides, none of that mattered now.
Bird sat with his hands in his lap. He was trying to be calm and beautiful and serene, like a bridegroom should. He tried to think of paintings he’d seen with weddings in them. How their faces had looked. How they’d held their arms.
“Shut your eyes, Big B,” Glass said. He did. She brushed gold paint from a little pot onto his eyelids. Bird knew the smell of that paint. He’d helped put it on his Aunt Happenstance when she married By Gudgeon years back. It was very expensive. The whole sprawling family had one pot, passed around when anyone got up the need to marry. It smelled sharp and green, like nettles, but like old coins, too. It should be a happy smell. Glass painted gold diamonds on his cheeks and gold swoops over his eyebrows. She rubbed his lips with a blue paste Bird knew she’d made herself—her duty as his nearest sibling—out of cornflowers, Lydia mushrooms just ripe, and black vinegar. Bird remembered how silly and marvelous By Gudgeon had looked with all this on. Like a wild, alien creature, he’d thought then. Something fierce and elfin and hungry. Glass put the knuckle of her index finger in his left elbow. I love you. Then she pinched his leg. Hard. I’m sorry. They’d discovered long ago that a free pinch took a lot of sting out of having to be the one to apologize.
“Mum,” Bird whispered. “What’s happening? What’s going to happen?”
“Birdy, you know. I’ve killed a Quidnunc. We don’t have a choice.”
“But you didn’t mean to,” Glass whined. Bird hated to hear her whine. Whining was the last refuge of babies, they’d agreed when Already came and neither of them could stand another minute of her colicky bawling. Let’s never. Never ever again. “It shouldn’t count! The Second Baobab says: IF YOU WANT TO BORROW SOMETHING, JUST ASK. Well, I want to borrow a cup of what’s right and fair!”
Until Aptrick kissed her daughter’s head. “Just because I didn’t meant to do it doesn’t make me innocent, my love.”
Bird tasted the bitter blue gloss on his mouth. He grimaced. He was trying. Be a painting, Self, he thought. Serene, beautiful, calm. But he didn’t want to be serene or calm. (He always wanted to be beautiful, but in that he was no different than anyone who has ever lived.) He wanted to understand. Bird always wanted to understand as completely as possible, so completely that his teachers usually just sent him to the library at the start of class rather than answer his questions past teatime and all reason.
“Mum, at a wedding, aren’t you and Papa supposed to tell the story of how my wife and I met?” Bird asked, looking up through his well-brushed hair and putting on his good-son eyes, the ones that always made his mother crack.
Tilly wanted to get on with this and get it done so that they could all skip to the part where it was over. But it was Bird’s wedding, bizarre and lonely as it was turning out to be, and he would have it his own way. Besides, Bird always loved that part best. Before the dancing, but after the long, boring vows when you sit down or else you’d give the couple bad luck. Everyone filled up their claycups with fiery peach muscat-wine and took their slices of redcake, made from the peculiar tufted barley of Frogskin Bridge milled as fine as dust. Then all four parents, usually already peached to the gills, tried to remember everything their children had told them about how they met and put it in the right order to make any kind of sense. They always botched it, Bird suspected on purpose, because it was always more fun that way. They ended up giggling til they could hardly breathe and settling on the facts: our By met Happenstance Medoc at the bottom of the Longago River where they both attended the naiads’ watercolor lessons on alternating Wednesdays. By wore grey. Happy wore seaweed.
Even better, from there on out, the couple would tell that story as though it was the very leanest truth, and no one would argue.
“Sure, Birdy. But …”
“But nothing. I know you can’t laugh and mix up who saw who first because nobody’s seen anybody. But you owe me. First time in fifteen years, but you owe me good, Mum. So tell me how I met my bride. Tell me why I’m marrying a dead Quidnunc. Because that’s just an old story and you’re acting like it’s real. You’re acting like we’re actually going to do it. You might as well tell me to get started spinning straw into gold because you shot a spinning wheel. It doesn’t make sense.”
Until Aptrick pulled her wedding clothes out of her good chest. She smoothed the black linen and dyed green-blue fur with her long fingers. They would do for Bird. At fifteen, he was only a little bigger than she’d been at twenty-five. She’d worn trousers, as a huntress and a Medoc. The women in her family never wore dresses if they could help it. She would have to find the wine-colored sash. They might have used it for swaddling clothes. Until couldn’t remember. But it was the right color. And her mind filled with the Quidnunc blood running off of her head like rain that night.
“It’s in Idem Arent’s treaty,” Tilly began. Glass interrupted her.
“I’ve been to the Sensible Bluffs loads of times! Show me the tree that has this rot carved on it!”
Until sighed and rubbed the back of her neck. “This came later. Just because six or seven people write down a few nice ideas and shake paws on it doesn’t mean everyone else will just go along because it’s hacked into a tree you can’t even see from the Very Well. Come on, Glass. What have I always said?”
“ ‘People are the worst!’ ” piped up Thrice from the kitchen. She stirred a boiling pot of honey and cranberries for the redcake, carefully keeping her brown pigtails out of the sticky soup. Thrice clenched the wooden spoon and whirled it round with all her seven-year-old might. Bird laughed.
“What? That’s what Mummy says. She likes Bunks better than people. And toads.”
Until Aptrick swept up her baby girl in her arms, tickling her and gnawing her shoulder like a Bunk gnaws its little ones. Thrice shrieked and squirmed.
“Except for my people,” she said, squeezing a little too hard, which made Thrice burp. “I like my people best.”
“I saw you snuggling one in the garden!” Thrice giggled helplessly. “You’re a Bunk-snuggler!”
Tilly put the girl back down on her footstool. “Have you put the nutmeg in?”
But Glass wasn’t smiling. Bird saw her cup her elbows in her hands, a clear busk for: Mum and/or another adult is talking nonsense but I won’t say anything just now. Bird certainly liked Bunks better than some people. But mostly he thought people tried not to be the worst, they just didn’t always quite pull it off.
Until wiped her hands on her thighs to get the errant honey off. It clung. “Well, people were certainly at their worst then. Some still hunted Quidnunx, they just got sneakier about it. Even after First Frost, with all those graves still new, they could only think of a Quidnunx roast in a pot on their stoves. They wore masks, crept into the Woods when everyone had gone to sleep, used darts and nets and poison traps no one would think to try now. You can’t bring down a Quidnunx quietly, but you can do it quickly, and you can run. Oh, I think the Quidnunx would have poached some of us, too, if we hadn’t been so generous as to deliver supper to their doorstep. Voila! Roast Idiot, mind the bones! Finally, after a lot of halfwitted gluttons had died on both sides, the Quidnunx got tired of our games. They refused to come to the village again. They sent a Bunk called Nathaniel. He reeked of perfume, the poor beast was so scared. But he read out the jotting the Quidnunx had given him. It wasn’t a treaty — they’d done that once already and Quidnunx hate doing anything more than once. They weren’t interested in negotiating. I had to memorize it at the monastery. The Abbot has it under glass in his office. It has a nice frame. So here it is, word for word for word.”
Bird watched in amazement as his mother hunched her shoulders, swished her hips like a Bunk flourishing his tail, and lowered her voice to a gravelly Bunkish grumble. She was trying to make him laugh, the way she did when he was a baby and she woke him up every morning as a different furry Fourpenny creature. He’d laughed until he couldn’t breathe. Even now, he woke up laughing nearly every morning, even when no one woke him but the sun. She was trying to make him laugh so he wouldn’t be afraid. Until Aptrick scrunched up her eyes til they were beady as a badger-wombat-skunk’s and growled:
“We Can See You, You Morons. We See Better In Our Own Blasted Forest Than You Do On A Sunny Day With Your Glasses On. Your Masks Are Stupid And You Are Stupid. Your Smells Say Your Names Out Loud. You Might As Well Have Them Written On Your Foreheads, MISTER BOON CHEDDAR OF TROFFERSIDE AND HIS NEPHEWS AMID, TILTING, AND NUFF. That Is Just An Example, You Gang of Nitwits. Now Listen As Well As You Can With Your Squiggly Crusty Snail Ears Because We Are Only Going To Say This Once. Whenever One Of You Kills One Of Us From Now Until We Say So, You Will Pay A Price. Are You Ready? It Is A Good One. No Longer Will Brave But A Little Careless Quidnunx Go Alone To The Eightpenny Woods, Which Is The Kingdom Of The Dead, Which You Would Know If You Weren’t A Such Bunch Of Bastards. The Hunter Who Fells The Quidnunc Shall Provide One Of Their Own Children To Wed The Quidnunc Ghost And Go With Them To The Eightpenny Woods And Carry Their Ghost-Bags And Useful Things Like That. And Also They Will Not Whine Or Be A Brat About It. As We Mentioned Before, We Will Know Who Did It. You Cannot Lie To Us Because You Are Not Good At It But We Are Excellent At It. This Is Not A Lie, Though. We Promise It Will Be A Real Wedding. We Are Not Just Going To Throw Them Off A Cliff Or Anything. If We Kill One Of You We Will Send A Quodkin Don’t Worry. But That Probably Won’t Happen Because We Don’t Want To Go Anywhere Near Your Lot Ever Again. You Are Rubbish And When You Laugh It Sounds Like Pigs. Just Do What We Say Or We Will Come Back And Eat You All Up And We Won’t Be Sorry Because You Taste Good And You Will Deserve It, For Crying Out Loud. We Are Done Talking, Nathaniel, You Can Stop Now. Hurry Home There Is Cake.”
Tilly Aptrick put her shoulders back the way they liked to sit. “It didn’t stop right away. People thought: what a mad thing to ask for, they can’t really mean it. But then one night a knock came at Boon Cheddar’s door and there was a Quidnunc, as big as an oath, with a wedding ring and a stern expression and a mouth full of shark teeth. And off went Nil Cheddar in her mother’s dress. They got letters from her sometimes. I’ve seen them. But they’re in some language no one can read, except her name at the bottom. People straightened up. Slowly. Every once in awhile someone would decide the world had just been waiting around for them to get born and fix it all up. Or someone would just get so desperately hungry. Or they’d … they’d have an accident. Your Grammy While told me the last Quidnunx wedding in Frogskin Bridge happened when she was Already’s age. A boy named Soon Stout married one called Dapplegrim. A young one. Even a poacher shouldn’t be killing quodkins. Your grammy was a little in love with Soon.”
“Am I going to die?” Bird’s throat dried up all in an instant.
“No, no, Birdy, I wouldn’t let —”
“Because that’s what it sounds like!” he cried. “It sounds like I’m marrying a dead monster and I’ll have to carry her bags in hell!”
“No, you won’t,” Glass bellowed. “I’ll go. I’ll go! Mum, the Quidnunc is dead.
What difference does it make if it marries a boy or a girl? They probably can’t even tell the difference! I’ll go. If we cut my hair, Bird and I look just alike. It’ll be fine. I always wanted to live in the Woods, anyway.”
“Guignol,” Until said softly.
“What?” Glass snarled. But she ran out of snarl halfway through the word. She’d
never spoken to her mother that way before.
“Guignol. The one I killed. The one who’s dead. A thinking, feeling, talking animal no different from us or anyone. Her name was Guignol. And she was the Gallithump, which is as close as Quidnunx have to a Queen, though it’s not exactly the same. It’s complicated. But if I don’t hold up my end they will destroy this village. To the littlest stones of the Bridge.”
“So I have to die,” Bird whispered. “Like Soon Stout.” He couldn’t breathe. What about Mel? And the library? And the place on the Bridge where you could hear the fish jumping down below and the violinist with an extra finger practicing above? What about his friends? Never and At and Untoward and Book and Little and Banjo and Cuff? What about that perfect place where the Woods are not the Woods yet but the Town isn’t the Town anymore? He would always be in the Woods now. And Glass would never be alright again. She’d never smile the same way.
“Don’t be dense. I’m going,” Glass clutched his hand tight. No busks. Just her hand around his.
“They asked for a male,” Until said, unable to look her children in the eyes. “I only have one. It was an accident, Bird. I couldn’t even see, it was so dark …”
“I don’t think they’re going to kill you,” came a voice rather too loud for the room. Book Brownbread had lived on the Bridge so long she hardly knew how to speak softly at all.
Bird looked up to see Book in her absurd harlequin dress in the doorway of their house, holding a crown of plenty in her hands. Suddenly, Bird Aptrick loved that girl like fire. Book Brownbread, who sat in the back of the classroom so her voice wouldn’t make the teacher wince. Who was as much of a know-it-all as him. Who lay on the riverbank and closed her eyes when Glass started up that stupid poem for the thousandth time. Who walked home with Melancholy every day and walked home singing. He loved her because she looked like real life. She looked like school. She looked like last week, when nothing bad had happened yet. Bird leapt up and hugged her so hard she hiccuped, then coughed, and then he set her down. The crown of plenty had gotten squashed up a little between them, but no damage done.
“If it helps,” Book said.
“If it helps. I don’t think they’re going to kill you. Soon Stout is my uncle —great-uncle, actually. I saw him yesterday. He was very cranky and he stole one of my pears.”
“But he married a Quidnunc. He went to the Eightpenny Woods,” Until said.
Book looked back and forth between the Aptricks. She pulled a wrinkled moonflower into place on the crown
“Well, he came back,” she said. “And he’s a sour old crab if you ask me.”
Six: The Ghost of Guignol’s Vow
In Frogskin Bridge, a wedding party processes from the bridegroom’s house, and they process dancing. The mother of the bride plays the flute, whether she’s any good or not. The father of the groom plays the fiddle, the smaller brothers and sisters play drums or spoons or each other’s heads. If it rains, the couple will have good luck for at least half their marriage.
They danced on Bird Aptrick’s wedding day. No one felt like it. No one wanted to. But you can’t take that away from a boy. From a man. You can’t deny him the sight of all his family and his friends and his whole home dancing and throwing peach pits on the road to watch them spark, wearing flowers in their hair, the color high and healthy in their cheeks, the rain, hopefully, drenching them to their stockings.
But the sun rose blistering and gold that autumn morning. Bird stepped out of his house in his black linen and green-blue fur, his high boots, his dashing half-cape, his crown of plenty as red and orange as the hill where he and Glass had invented a sign for Quidnunx. He looked grown-up. He looked as serene and beautiful and calm as a painting. He clung to Glass on one side and Book on the other for just enough courage to put one foot in front of the other. Until and Middle came out after, carrying Rarely and Thrice while Already cried as though she could make all the rain her brother needed by herself. Most all of Sclafferside waited for them, standing very still, not knowing what to do or what to say. Great hot glowing pumpkins lay everywhere, in front of every house, steaming in the dawn. Bird knew without looking that Melancholy wasn’t there. She couldn’t bear it, she’d said. She’d wait forever but she couldn’t watch him go. She was weak. She was sorry. If Soon Stout came back he would, too, and she’d be waiting in the towers of Pudding and Sons, but she couldn’t watch him marry someone else. Even the ghost of a monster.
One foot, then another. It was a long way to the edge of the Fourpenny Woods.
Book let go of Bird’s arm. He stumbled a little. She nicked up his chin and danced a funny little half-step, lifted up her skirts and tried a kick, a faint jig.
“Two for a penny, six for a milkcap, a bushel for a crown, the world is bright when your bread is brown!” she sang, because she had no drum to play. Book held out her hands to Already and Glass, and they didn’t want to, they had never felt less like dancing, but they did anyhow. And then everyone was dancing all together, singing Book’s fruit-selling song, and then any song anyone could think of, and Until whistled because she had no flute, Rarely squalled because she was a baby and it was the best song she knew, Middle Aptrick slapped his legs and their neighbors hollered up the sun, weeping, dancing, sending Bird off because they couldn’t keep him.
The edge of the Woods came sooner than Bird thought. That perfect place where the Woods are not the Woods yet but the Town isn’t the Town anymore. He looked into the trees he loved, the deep, soft shadows.
And the shadows moved.
Shapes creaked and floated just beyond the treeline. Fur. Horn. Bird tried to remember the paintings. He tried to remember Soon Stout, safe at home on Frogskin Bridge complaining about his grandchildren. He tried to remember how much he always wanted to understand and to be excited that he was certainly about to understand something now that he hadn’t before. Bird couldn’t quite manage it on the inside. But he turned to the crowd and nailed a smile to his face. He waved and cried:
Bird kissed his mother, who fell to her knees and could not speak. He kissed his father and his sisters. He kissed the miller and the blacksmith and the dovekeeper and a couple of goats and a cow. He kissed Book Brownbread, who whispered in his ear: I’ll come to the Wood at Midnight,’ the Fool to the Brave Bunk replied, ‘and I shall bring gifts for the bride.’
Bird jerked back from her. She gave him a sly look and laid her finger aside her nose. Book Brownbread was making a busk! Had Glass taught her? They had never taught anyone, not even their little sisters. He knew what it meant, but he could not believe it. The last time he saw Glass do that he’d broken a lantern and cut his hand. I’ll fix you up and I won’t tell on you. What could Book mean? But she would not say.
Finally, Bird Aptrick faced the Woods. He could feel Glass beside him, her fear and worry crackling like a peach pit. He knew he had to say something to her, but his throat wouldn’t do it. If he said something, it would all start happening and he’d never see her again. He’d never get to the other side of it happening.
Glass reached over and pinched her brother’s ear. She grinned at him.
“No, Glass,” Bird sputtered, half laughing, half swallowing the cry that wanted to come out. It was their first busk. The first secret code every between Bird and Glass, younger sister to older brother. “It’s against the rules.”
“I listened to that whole rotten speech and I didn’t hear anything about not having groomsmen.”
She pinched his ear again. Any younger sibling could tell you what she meant. It’s the thing you most want to say when you’re young and your brother gets to go out further in the garden than you, stay out longer into twilight, venture deeper into the Woods. But you wouldn’t say it where anyone could hear.
Shut up. I’m your sister so you have to take me with you.
The sun slid behind a bank of clouds that drifted between the Forest and the Valley. Gently, without making a fuss about it, it began to rain.