EXEUNT IN A ROWBOAT, PURSUED BY CROWS
In Which a Girl Named September Keeps a Secret, Has a Difficult Time at School, Turns Thirteen, and Is Finally Nearly Run over by a Rowboat, Thereby Finding Her Way into Fairyland
Once upon a time, a girl named September had a secret.
Now, secrets are delicate things. They can fill you up with sweetness and leave you like a cat who has found a particularly fat sparrow to eat and did not get clawed or bitten even once while she was about it. But they can also get stuck inside you, and very slowly boil up your bones for their bitter soup. Then the secret has you, not the other way around. So we may be very glad that September had the better of her secret, and carried it with her like a pair of rich gloves which, when she was cold, she could take out and slip on to remember the warmth of days gone by.
September’s secret was this: She had been to Fairyland.
This has happened to other children in the history of the world. There are many books about it, and for ever so long little boys and girls have been reading them and making wooden swords and paper centaurs and waiting for their turn. But for September, the waiting had ended last spring. She had fought a wicked queen and saved a whole country from her cruelty. She had made friends who, in addition to being funny and brave and clever, were a Wyvern, a Marid, and a talking lamp.
The only trouble was, precious few books about swashbuckling folk have much to say on the subject of how to behave when one gets home. September had changed profoundly from a girl who desperately wanted such things to be real to one who knew they were real. Such a change is less like getting a new haircut than getting a new head.
It did not particularly improve her school life.
Where once September seemed merely and quietly odd, staring out the window during Mathematics lectures and reading big colorful books under her desk during Civics, now the other children sensed something wild and foreign about her. The girls in her grade could not have said what it was about September that so enraged them. If you sat them down and asked them about it, the best they could have managed might have been, “She’s just not like us.”
And so they did not invite her to birthday parties; they did not ask about her summer vacation. They did steal her books and tell lies about her to their teachers. “September cheats on her algebra,” they revealed in strictest confidence. “September reads ugly old books during physical exercise.” “September goes behind the chemistry building with boys.” They snickered behind her back in tones that sent up prickly hedges all around their tight huddles of lace dresses and ribboned curls. They stood on the inside of those hedges, the whispers said, and September would always stand on the outside.
Against all this, September held her secret. When she felt awful and lonely and cold, she would take it out and blow upon it like an ember, until it glowed again and filled her up: A-Through-L, her Wyverary, snuffling at Saturday’s blue cheek until he laughed, and the Green Wind stamping his emerald snowshoes in the wheat. All of them waiting for her to come back, which she would—soon, so terribly soon, any moment now. She felt very much like her Aunt Margaret, who had never seemed quite the same after coming home from her travels. She would tell long stories about Paris and silk trousers and red accordions and bulldogs and no one understood her particularly. But they listened politely until she trailed off, looking out the window as if she might see the river Seine flowing by instead of acre after acre of wheat and corn. September felt she understood her Aunt now, and resolved to be specially attentive toward her when she visited again.
Every evening, September carried on. She washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups that she had always washed, minded the same small and increasingly anxious dog she had always minded, and listened to the tall walnut-wood radio for bulletins about the war, about her father. The radio loomed so tall and huge in their parlor that it seemed to her like a terrible door, ready to open at any moment and let bad news in. As the sun set on the long yellow prairie each day, she kept a keen eye out for a flash of green on the horizon, a spotted pelt flashing through the grass, a certain laugh, a certain purr. But autumn dealt its days like a pack of golden cards, and no one came.
Her mother had Sundays off from the airplane factory, and so September fell in love with Sundays. They would sit together comfortably by the fire and read while the dog worried their shoelaces, or her mother would slide under Mr. Albert’s miserable old Model A and bang at it until September could turn the key and hear it grumble into life once more. Not so long ago her mother read out loud to her from some book or other concerning fairies or soldiers or pioneers, but now they read companionably, each to their own novels or newspapers, quite as September remembered her mother doing with her father, before the war. Sundays were the best days, when the sunlight seemed to last forever, and September would bloom under her mother’s big, frank smile. On Sundays, she didn’t hurt. She didn’t miss a place she could never explain to a grown-up person. She didn’t wish her small dinner with its meager ration of tinned beef were a fey feast of candy and roasted hearts and purple melons full of rainwater wine.
On Sundays, she almost didn’t think about Fairyland at all.
Sometimes she considered telling her mother about everything that had happened. Sometimes she burned to do it. But something older and wiser within her said, Some things are for hiding and for keeping. She feared that if she said it out loud it would all vanish, it would never have been, it would blow away like dandelion cotton. What if none of it had been real? What if she had dreamed it, or worse, had lost her mind like her father’s cousin in Iowa City? Any of these were too awful to consider, but she could not help considering all the same.
Whenever she thought those dark thoughts, that she might just be a silly girl who had read too many books, that she might be mad, September glanced behind her and shuddered. For she had proof that it had all really happened. She had lost her shadow there, on a distant river, near a distant city. She had lost something big and true, and could not get it back. And if anyone should notice that she cast no shadow before or behind, September would have to tell. But while her secret remained secret, she felt she could bear it all—the girls at school, her mother’s long shifts, her father’s absence. She could even bear the looming radio crackling away like an endless fire.
* * *
Nearly a year had passed since September had come home from Fairyland. Being quite a practical child, she had become very interested in mythology since her exploits on the other side of the world, studying up on the ways of fairies and old gods and hereditary monarchs and other magical folk. From her research, she reasoned that a year was just about right. One big, full turn of the sun. Surely the Green Wind would be sailing back over the sky for her any day, laughing and leaping and alliterating his way back into her world. And since the Marquess had been defeated and the locks of Fairyland undone, this time September would have no awful feats to perform, no harsh tests of her courage, only delight and fun and blackberry trifles.
But the Green Wind did not come.
As the end of spring neared, she began t