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Books lie. That’s the first thing anyone needs to know in opening one—simply because it was written doesn’t make it true. “An' he were taken to the Winterlands. The Winter's Land. The hinterlands and the winter's ends. The Land's End.”
The boy reread those lines. And the footsteps drew closer. He listened to his own breathing. And then he heard:
“Andrew ! Daddy's coming. I can hear you. Daddy's on his way. Just stay right there.”
But the door wasn’t anymore. Just four walls, and the closet, where the book had told him there was an invisible door. He didn’t want to go through there; he wanted his daddy. His mommy. Wanted to go home. But wasn’t this how all the best books began? With Danger and an Adventure. Perhaps he could only win free by being Brave, a Hero.
Every book needs a Hero, doesn’t it?
So he said, “I’m coming, Daddy.”
Then he opened up the closet and found—
“Are you paying attention, Madeleine?” Remi sounded cross.
She made her apologetic face, as if she had burnt the soup on a night when they had important guests arriving. “Yes, I don’t see…oh, there. Yes.” And she moved a piece on the chessboard, just a nudge really, and— ________________________________________________________________________________________________
—the door to elsewhere, a shiny spiral path, made entirely of black light. Seemed to travel upward in a dizzying swirl, nearly impossible for the human eye to track, but he was a Hero, wasn’t he? And heroes made a business of doing such things.
And so the boy climbed. It was fearsomely cold and his teeth chattered. He wanted a proper supper, his favorite blanket and his bear Reginald, a hug from his mother, and his father to sing to him sleep. But Heroes weren’t allowed to whine, and so he climbed.
He was so hungry, so tired, and he began to see things. Things that weren’t real outside of books, but then, he should expect that sort of thing, being a Hero. And so he let himself believe the wonders that adulthood crushes out of the soul: fairies as fireflies, gremlins in the woodpile, the brownie that fixes things around the house for a dish of milk, trolls under bridges, and the harmless whatsit that lives under the bed and delights in grabbing children’s ankles.
All along the way, he sometimes saw others, people he almost recognized, or would recognize at some later point, but even though he waved, they never saw him. And then he came to two doors marked, Right and Left. Right seemed like a too obvious choice; it couldn’t be that simple, could it? Heroes were famous for sorting out puzzles of this type. The right door wouldn’t be marked ‘right’ if it were right, but what did it mean otherwise? A directional, of course, but…then—
“A little help?” Madeleine asked. She understood now, entirely. Her stomach twisted at the need for her boy to make the right choice, but she wasn’t a very good weaver. It seemed a trifle unfair of Remi to expect her to take up the slack for Clotho, Lacheis, and Atropos, who were all drinking claret downstairs. Her hands shook as she tweaked the white Knight and— ________________________________________________________________________________________________
—the boy made his choice. “Well,” he said to no one in particular and everyone who ever has been or ever shall be born, “I’m trying to leave, or perhaps I’ve already left. So…”
He opened the door. Stepped out into a hallway with a worn maroon rug. There was a boy with dark hair rolling some marbles on the shiny dark wood of the floor. They made a lovely clatter against the wainscoting. It was warm and for a moment, the blue-eyed boy forgot he was in danger.
“Can I play?” he asked, and the other child nodded without speaking.
As they rolled the brightly whorled marbles, shaping patterns, breaking minuscule worlds, over and over again, silently, companionable, he began to feel warmer. Not scared, although he wouldn’t have admitted he ever was afraid in the first place, not very Heroic, you see. And then the dark-haired boy said, “It’s time to play something else. You must stand very still now, like a statue. I’ll show you where.”
It never occurred to him to disobey because the boy sounded oddly like his father when he was stating it was bedtime or bathtime or brushing-teeth time. And so he followed him along the hall, where they chose a place beside the stairs. So they took up a spot, on either side, and played the pretend game, wherein they both became wooden Indians, whom nobody would ever glance at twice, because, well, who looks at such things, really? Except perhaps wooden ladies, but that’s an entirely different story, and we’re very far from the ocean.
The Looking People came and went angrily, making noisy steps, and nobody suspected, nobody saw. Because the blue-eyed boy wasn’t there anymore; he had Left. And when the pretend game was done, the dark haired boy said, “You tell your mother, when you see her, that I found a miracle, won’t you?”
“I know,” Madeleine whispered. “I know.”
“Yes,” said the blue-eyed boy. “I shall. I promise.”
It was right to hug the boy, who couldn’t stop pretending to be a wooden Indian for quite some while. And he, the Hero, had a quest to complete. And so one of the statues went down the stairs and away from Land’s End, but not to the hinterlands, not to the place where everyone thought he’d wind up, at least, not quite in the manner they expected. Because, you see, there are always Important People in search of a Hero, and not always bad ones. There was a Reunion to be had, one day, or perhaps somewhere along the Black Stair, it's already happening, and will happen again, and again, and so on...
Well. That oaf Shakespeare knew how it would turn out.
The King doth keep his Revels here tonight,
She never had so sweet a changeling,
“Well,” said the Black Queen, admiring her retinue, which lately included a Princeling, a Poet, and a weaver of fates. “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”