The Trains that Climb the Winter Tree
We hope you enjoy this holiday story by Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn, previously available only to Tor.com registrants. Don’t forget to check out the process post from Michael and Eileen once you finish! Merry Christmas!
It was the middle of the night when the elves came out of the mirrors. Everyone in the house was asleep. Outside, the city slumbered. Silent as shadows, the warriors went from room to room. Their knives were so sharp they could slit a throat without awakening their victim.
They killed all the adults.
The children they spared.
It was the middle of the night when the elves came out of the mirrors. Everyone in the house was asleep. Outside, the city slumbered. Silent as shadows, the warriors went from room to room. Their knives were so sharp they could slit a throat without awakening their victim.
They killed all the adults.
The children they spared.
The bodies were carried away, back through the mirrors. Four of the elves swiftly stripped naked. They put on the adults’ nightclothes over their sexless bodies. Their own clothing they hid at the bottom of dresser drawers where the children never went. Then each one slowly and carefully assumed the form and features, down to the most intimate details, of Father, Mother, Grandmother, and Great-Aunt Adelaide.
Meanwhile, the other warriors were fetching boxes from the far side of the parlor mirror. With preternatural grace they removed from them tiny, toy-sized locomotives and passenger cars, boxcars, coal hoppers, refrigerator cars, gondolas, tank cars, flatbeds piled high with logs, floodlight cars, mail cars, ore cars, cabooses, and a tiny string of circus cars with gorillas in cages and giraffes poking through the roofs. . . . Unwrapped tissue paper foamed up into drifts, which were then whisked magically away. Clever elfin fingers assembled tracks and placed alongside them stations, houses, bungalows, garages, churches, restaurants, fruit and vegetable stands, a roller rink, a grain elevator, a lumberyard, a coaling station, factories, water towers, and a central roundhouse with a turntable. Bridges spanned imaginary rivers. Tunnels split papier-mâché mountains. The transformers were hooked up, the electrical connections made, and the trains set in motion.
Then the elves left. The four who remained went to three separate bedrooms where they lay down and pretended to sleep. The one who was not Father pretended to snore.
It was Christmas Eve, and nobody outside the house knew that life inside it had changed forever.
* * *
Roland was the first one up on Christmas morning. He tiptoed down the stairs from the attic room, which he shared with Benjamin, and then quietly past Sasha and Zoë’s room on the second floor, so he wouldn’t wake up any of his siblings. Roland was seven and he saw things differently. Just before falling asleep last night, he had told himself to wake up fifteen minutes before any of the others so he could see the toys and the decorations before they came down. Christmas didn’t look like other days. He wanted to see it clearly, and it distracted him when other people were there.
And, oh, he did see it clearly! Roland froze in the doorway, letting Christmas morning wrap its glittery tentacles of light about him. The tree was a vast darkness spangled with multicolored stars brighter than anything in the winter sky. The packages that Jolly Father Nicholas had piled so high were candy-colored, troll-haunted mountains! And through them ran a train.
What a train it was! Crossing gates clanged shut as it slammed past. It flew through forests of birch and spruce and stopped at coal hoppers to take on fuel and at log hoppers to unload. Tiny plastic cows shuffled on and off cattle cars. Commuters waited patiently at stations that twinkled with lights. The train rattled over trestle bridges, disappeared into tunnels, reappeared from under overpasses thronged with cars, and thundered past night-silent gas stations and factory buildings. There was a wee village that was the exact twin of the one lying outside Roland’s front door, right down to the sizes and types of the trees, and the train paused there, directly in front of the house, as if waiting for somebody to emerge and climb aboard. Then, with an impatient puff of smoke, the black locomotive chuffed and chugged and tugged the train away.
Off it sped to lands unknown.
After the track left the village, it wound through the living room, under the divan, past the farms that lay beneath the big upright radio, around Mother’s potted sansevieria, between a water tower and a single forlorn custard stand, and into the shadows of the tree and the piney fragrance of its branches. And then, amazingly, the track turned and twisted and ran up the tree. It spiraled around and around the trunk, showing here and there a glint of bright metal before disappearing entirely into the wintry darkness. Did it ever come down again? Roland wondered. He was the kind of child who enjoyed logical puzzles and took forever solving them because he saw far more possibilities than the other children did. He didn’t assume that just because something acted in a way contrary to all prior experience, that meant it was impossible. The universe made sense; deep down inside, Roland was sure of that. But it wasn’t necessarily a sense that you understood.
He crawled under the tree and felt around, careful not to dislodge a single snow-covered ball, though the needles scratched his hands. The tracks went up. But no tracks came back down.
Of course, there could be a turntable for the train at the top of the tree, just as there was one in the train yards near the village. Or possibly the track simply looped around on itself there. Roland had just straightened up and was about to go to the kitchen to get a chair so he could look when he heard a tiny train whistle behind him. A twenty-five-car freight train shot out of the tunnel and between his legs and, with an I-think-I-can chug-chug-chug-shug, began to climb the tree. He stuck his head deep into the resinous branches and watched, open-mouthed, as it wound up the trunk. The train lights quickly dwindled and winked out, leaving behind only the diminishing sound of the train’s tiny steam engine.
What fun, thought Roland. He wondered where it was going.
A hand closed on his shoulder. “Would you like to get on?” asked Aunt Adelaide. “Would you like to ride to the top of the winter tree?”
* * *
Something was wrong. Sasha woke up knowing that for a fact.
It was a dreadful sensation to have first thing on Christmas Day. But Sasha couldn’t shake it. Zoë shrieked and Benjamin whooped as they tore open package after package, and Mother looked on with that foolish-sentimental smile she got at times like this, and Father puffed on his pipe, and Grandmother rattled about in the kitchen, preparing an elaborate breakfast while Great-Aunt Adelaide pleaded with her to just this one think of herself, May, and for pity’s sake watch the children open their presents, it only happens once a year. Then Benjamin pushed Zoë away from the train set so he could play with it himself, and Zoë started to cry, of course, and Mr. Chesterton, newly let in the back door after a night spent outside, ran in frantic circles and then lost a fight with a tangle of ribbons that Zoë, her tears forgotten already, had draped about him. “What a madhouse!” Father grumped, and stomped angrily away. Young though she was, all this was an old and familiar tradition to Sasha.
Nevertheless, something was not quite right.
In part it was the presents. They were truly surprising presents, unlike anything the children had asked for.
There was a giant rubber ball for Benjamin, patterned in harlequin diamonds of hundreds of different colors so bright they hurt the eyes. It was bigger than a Saint Bernard, and so heavy that you’d think there was a lead weight at its core. Nor could Benjamin or his sisters figure out how so large and heavy a thing was meant to be played with. When he kicked it, Benjamin howled with pain and grabbed his toe. “It’s not broken,” Mama said with a gentle smile. “I know that next time you’ll be more careful, dear.”
Benjamin placed his hands flat against the ball and gave it a shove. Then he leaped back in surprise. “It’s very cold!” he said. “My palms hurt.”
Papa chuckled, and his eyes twinkled just a bit. He gave the ball a quick kick with his foot, and it flew across the room and hit Mr. Chesterton, who yelped. “Goal!” said Papa, and he laughed.
Zoë got a paper sculpture kit with a rainbow sheaf of sheets and a set of X-Acto knives. Mama guided the toddler’s chubby fingers around a knife and showed her how to cut. “She’s such a smart girl, my little Zoë,” Mama said, and went to heat up some hot chocolate. Sasha hovered over her baby sister and, the instant that her attention wavered, snatched the knives away and hid them.
And Sasha got a baby doll that cried real tears when you pinched its arm. It was wondrous. Sasha had never even known there was such a thing. She pinched it over and over, and it cried and cried.
But after all the packages were opened, Sasha, sitting with a new pair of flannel pajamas neatly folded in her lap and the baby doll lying beside her, could not feel the holiday spirit. It was as if everything were happening on the other side of a sheet of glass.
A terrible emptiness gnawed at her. Something important was missing, she thought. Something was horribly wrong.
Christmas Day seemed to last forever. After the presents, there was a heavy breakfast of neeps and tatties and blood sausage and haggis and toast, with bread pudding and black coffee for dessert. Sasha had been hoping that Aunt Adelaide would make her favorite hoe cakes, with syrup and round spicy pork sausage and fried green tomatoes, and shoofly pie and a cherry pie too, because it was Christmas, and clabber with brown sugar, and maybe a surprise dish that Sasha had never even seen before. But Grandmother ruled the kitchen that morning, and Sasha left the table feeling leaden, and strangely empty for someone so full.
Then there were lively outdoor games of battledore bashing and leap-the-creek with Papa, who never seemed to know when enough was enough. Dinner went on for far too long, and it came far too soon after breakfast.
But eventually the light faded from the chilly sky and it was time for everyone to come inside for sardines and porridge. That evening, after Sasha had dried the dishes, she told her parents she thought that maybe she had a headache and she was going to her room to lie down.
She went upstairs, and Mr. Chesterton pattered along after her. The pervasive sense of wrongness she had felt all day had grown stronger, but it receded a little when she opened the door to her bedroom and went inside. Her toys and clothes looked just the same as always. She had left her new doll downstairs; she wasn’t sure she wanted to be alone with it.
When she lay down on the bed, Mr. Chesterton climbed up after her. He didn’t curl up on the counterpane as usual. Instead, he rested his chin on his front paws and watched her steadily, through apprehensive eyes.
She pulled his head onto her lap and petted him. He was warm and furry and drooled a little and smelled comfortingly doggish. For the first time today, the pane of glass between her and the rest of the world was gone.
Sasha hugged the dog to her and tears came into her eyes. “Oh, Mr. Chesterton,” she whispered into the soft ruff of his neck, “something’s wrong, and I don’t know what to do.”
“Stop strangling me,” Mr. Chesterton said irritably, “and I’ll tell you.”
Sasha made an eep noise and let go of his neck. Animals talked all the time in her storybooks. But all the storybooks in the world couldn’t prepare somebody to accept it when it happened to her. “You talked!” she said. “How can you be talking?”
The dog looked disgusted. “There’s really no time for all this. We’ve got to save your brother.”
“Benjamin is in trouble?”
“Not him. The other one, the little guy with the funny haircut. Smells like denim and peanut butter all the time – Roland.”
“I’ve got two brothers?” Nobody in any of her storybooks ever discovered that she had an extra brother. But all the silence in all the storybooks in the world was no more preparation for it happening to her than the talking animals had been. Nevertheless, she was pretty sure that Mr. Chesterton was really thinking of Benjamin. Maybe he smelled like a different person when he ate peanut butter. Mr. Chesterton was only a dog after all.
“I may be a dog, but I can tell the difference between a kid who smells like peanut butter and one who smells like Duco cement.” Benjamin had taken a recent interest in Renwal kits of aircraft carriers.
“Oh-kaaaay,” said Sasha. Now she realized that she had another, even more difficult, concept to accept. A talking dog, okay. She could accept a talking dog. But could she accept a talking dog that could read her mind?
“Are you going to stumble over every new idea, or are you going to get cracking and save Roland before it’s too late?” Mr. Chesterton said impatiently. “You’ve got about three hours, while the elves are amusing themselves by draining the blood from the neighbors’ kittens. After that, it may be too late for all of you. And Roland is the key. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have sent him up the Winter Tree.”
He hopped down from Sasha’s lap and went to the box where she kept all her doll clothing, everything that wasn’t currently being worn by one or another of her dolls. In a kind of fury, he rifled through them, briefly holding up items of dress and impatiently flinging them away.
“Baby clothes!” he growled. “What am I supposed to do with baby clothes? Don’t you have any grown-up dolls? One with a bit of masculine sartorial flair, perhaps?”
“Well, there’s this,” Sasha said doubtfully. She pulled Benjamin’s Halloween costume out of a box on the closet floor. He’d gone as Mr. Bojangles, the famous tap dancer.
“A costume? Am I a mountebank, then, to be clad in entertainer’s motley?” But Mr. Chesterton tried on the checked trousers, and they fit to his irritated satisfaction. The green vest, he conceded, suited him rather well. And the homburg, once he donned it, didn’t look at all as tawdry as it had in the box. “It’s not the clothes,” he said, surveying himself in the mirror. “It’s how one carries oneself.” Then, on all fours, he bounded out of the room and down the stairs.
“Hand me down the glass cane on the mantelpiece,” Mr. Chesterton said. “The one your mother never lets you handle.”
Stretching up on her tiptoes, Sasha did as she was told. Once Mr. Chesterton had the cane in his paw, he got up on his hind legs. Standing thus, he was even taller than was Sasha herself. Dressed as he was, and holding the cane in such a dapper manner, he looked almost human.
A bell clanged directly outside the house.
“Ah,” Mr. Chesterton said. “Right on time.”
He opened the front door.
A gleaming black locomotive with bright brass trim waited at the curb, on tracks that had never been there before, white smoke puffing impatiently into the night from its stack. Behind it was a short train of three wood-sided passenger cars, one sleeper, and a dining car, all painted green-and-gold, and a bright red caboose. From the platform of the caboose, the brakeman swung his lantern, urging them toward the front-most car. The conductor leaned down to help them aboard. “’Evening,” he said. “How far are you folks going?” He did not so much as blink at Mr. Chesterton’s appearance. For him, apparently, an elegantly dressed dog walking on his hind legs was an everyday occurrence.
“All the way,” Mr. Chesterton said. He gestured brusquely toward the horizon, where a vast, star-flecked shadow dominated the sky. It took Sasha a moment to realize that the shadow was a tree, larger than anything this side of the moon, and that what looked like stars were actually ornaments. “Right straight to the top.” He handed the conductor a pair of pasteboard tickets.
“Right-oh, sir!” The conductor briskly punched the tickets, led them to the sleeping car and opened a compartment door. Then he saluted snappily, spun on his heel, and was gone. With a jerk, the train started forward.
The car was empty save for the two of them. Sasha stared out the window at the passing town with its neat houses like cunningly-detailed toys, each with a tidy yard no larger than a handkerchief and trees so small she could have picked them up with her hand and stuck them in a pocket. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“To see the Big Guy,” Mr. Chesterton said. “The lord of all things, who lives in the sky.”
“Do you mean . . . God?”
“Don’t call him that,” Mr. Chesterton snapped. “He’s nothing of the sort–though he’d like you to believe he is.”
And that was all he would say.
For a time they watched the passing land in silence. The town fell behind them and the tracks slanted gently upward. Evidently they were starting the long spiral up the tree and into the sky.
Then Mr. Chesterton yawned and stood. “I’m going off to get myself a beer,” he said. “Don’t wait up for me.”
He disappeared down the corridor. Leaving Sasha alone with her thoughts, to fret and worry.
* * *
Not long after, a tall and distinguished-looking man in a Pullman porter uniform knocked on the compartment door. “Good evening, young miss. I’m just here to make up the beds,” he said, and deftly set to work, popping down the upper berth from the ceiling and folding back the seats, fastening curtains, attaching the headboard. In less time than it took to tell, he’d added sheets, pillows, and blankets. “There!” he said, smiling. “All done.”
Sasha sat down on the lower berth. “Thank you.”
The porter’s face grew serious. “You look unhappy, little missy. Is there a problem?”
“No . . . yes . . . I don’t know.”
“Well then, why don’t you tell me all about it?” He stood listening with such patient sympathy that in no time at all Sasha found herself pouring out her heart to him. She told him everything she knew.
“Hmmm,” the porter said when she was done. “Well, you are in a pickle, young lady, and no doubt about that. However, others have been in worse situations and turned out well. You need only consider Moses or Temudjin, both of whom overcame early setbacks to become highly regarded gentlemen. For that matter, Harriet Tubman was born a slave, and rescued not only herself but many neighbors and family members from that unspeakable condition. You’re a bright young lady, and not hincty. Not a bit hincty, nossir. So with a little perseverance, you could well redeem your brother. Despite the company you keep.”
“Mr. Chesterton? He’s a good dog!”
“Mr. Chesterton, as he chooses to call himself, is a bit of rascal,” the porter said sternly, “and I fear he’s not as reliable as he ought to be. But his heart is sound, so long as he stays away from . . . certain substances. Trust him, but keep him on a short leash.”
Then the Pullman porter leaned down and in a voice so low it was almost a whisper said, “My name is William, but they call me Big Bill. If you find yourself at the station up above without a ticket home, just tell any porter that Big Bill said you were a special friend. We are a Brotherhood and, though we are only human, we will do what we can to see you home safe.”
Then he smiled again. “Meanwhile, you should take your mind off your troubles with a little light entertainment.” From a compartment Sasha had not noticed before, he withdrew a stack of comic books. “I keep these for situations like this. You may take them with you, but don’t tell anybody where you got them.”
Sasha was enormously touched. “You’re very nice to me,” she said.
The porter winked conspiratorially. “Well, we colored folk have got to stick together, don’t we, young miss? Whatever our station is on life’s railroad.”
Then, with a punctilious bow, he was gone.
The comic books he left behind were filled with bright drawings and exciting stories. There was Baron Munchausen at the End of Time and Deros of Broadway and Isaac Newton, Robot Fighter and Yaa Asantewaa Warrior Queen Versus the Demons of Entropy. There were even three issues of The Adventures of Mr. Chesterton, and those were the best of all. In them, Mr. Chesterton was always fighting evil elves. Sometimes they got the upper hand, because he was too easily distracted by a stogie, a glass of whiskey, or a chew toy. But always he managed to save the day, chasing off the pasty-skinned, pointy-eared villains with a growl and disposing of their leader with a sharp thump on the head with his walking stick. In one, he even battled Morningstar the Living Sun, a being which could destroy entire planets with a single casual solar flare, and yet Mr. Chesterton triumphed over it with his usual swagger. There was no enemy, it seemed, he could not defeat.
Sasha wasn’t supposed to read comic books, because they were trash, but these ones made her feel powerful and safe and protected. She knew they were only stories, but she was glad that the porter had given them to her, although she hoped she would never need to ask him or his friends for a free ride home. She had been brought up to pay for whatever she received. Her parents would not like her accepting charity.
Some hours later, Mr. Chesterton came lurching unsteadily into their compartment, reeking of beer and tobacco. Sasha was lying in her berth, reading, when he came in.
“What’s this?” he demanded when he saw the comics and snatched one up from the top of the pile. “Don’t tell me you’re reading–” Then he saw his name and image on the cover. “Hmph! Well! Not exactly Horace Walpole, is it? Still, it can do you no harm, and it might conceivably do some good. Sometimes there’s useful information hidden in such pulp extravaganzas, like raisins in a cinnamon bun. Read on, child–read on!”
And, looking pleased, he climbed into his own berth, turned in a circle three times round, and curled up atop the blankets.
* * *
In the morning–but Sasha had to take Mr. Chesterton on his word that it was morning, for the sky outside was still midnight-black and spangled with stars–they arrived at their destination.
The station at the top of the tree was shaped like a star, with bright spikes in every direction. As they came toward it, it grew and grew until it filled the sky and then the train looked like it was going to crash right into the wall but instead rumbled into a tunnel entrance that had been invisible when the station first appeared. For an instant the train was enveloped in light. Then darkness swallowed it up.
When the train pulled into the station and Sasha tried to stand, to her amazement she bobbed up into the air. Mr. Chesterton pulled her down. “Mind your skirts,” he growled. “Keep them wrapped about your ankles, or at least your knees, at all times. You don’t want to give a bad impression.”
“But I’m . . . I’m . . . flying!”
“What did you expect? Gravity doesn’t affect us here. But be careful! You’ve still got all the mass you came in with, and you’ll find that momentum is a powerful force when it’s the only one operating on you.”
Sasha had no idea what Mr. Chesterton was talking about. But under his tutelage, she quickly learned how to move gracefully. She need simply tuck up her legs while floating alongside a wall or pillar and then kick out against that solid surface. This made her fly through the air at a comfortable and steady rate. When, floating down one of the vast radial corridors of the station, they came to an intersection, Mr. Chesterton would take her by the arm and then, snagging a pole at the intersection’s very center with his glass cane, swing them around and release them so that they were flying with undiminished speed down a new corridor. It was a delightful sensation, like playing crack-the-whip.
Finally, they found themselves speeding down a long white empty corridor like the inside of a rifle barrel. “Where are we going to?” Sasha asked.
“Tesseract House.” Mr. Chesterton pointed straight ahead of them at a black circle where the corridor ended. There might have been a faint speck of light in its center. “We have to cross miles of vacuum to get to it, but so long as you hold your breath and don’t show the yellow feather, all will be well.” Solemnly, he added, “This is your first test. If you want to be a hero, you must pass them all.”
“But I don’t want to be–”
“Take a deep breath! Don’t let it out!”
Sasha did as she was told, and then glass doors flew open before them and they sailed out into space.
It was so cold that Sasha’s face stung and the tears that welled up involuntarily from her eyes froze on her cheeks. She held her breath, though the air within her lungs seemed like a living thing, eager to escape from her. But Mr. Chesterton flew alongside Sasha, holding her hand firmly, and the warmth of his paw lent her strength.
Outer space was not only cold but eerily silent. But when she turned toward Mr. Chesterton, he nodded reassuringly, as if to say, “There, there, old girl. Well done!” He never opened his mouth.
The voyage seemed to take forever–far longer, Sasha was absolutely sure, than she’d ever been able to hold her breath before. Finally, however, a dim spark directly ahead of them, seemingly one minor star in a myriad, brightened and grew and became a house. Mr. Chesterton nodded at it in a way that indicated that it was their destination. Tesseract House looked like five houses all crammed together so that there were roofs pointing in every direction, even down. Sasha had just enough time to suppose that they came in handy here, where it was weightless and you could never know from which direction the rain might come, when the house swelled up to encompass the universe and she was standing on its threshold.
Mr. Chesterton opened the door and ushered Sasha in. When they were both inside, he said, “You can stop holding your breath now.”
All the air in Sasha’s lungs whooshed out of her, and she gasped for more. It was warm here, and they stood on the floor as if everything were normal. Her knees felt weak and wobbly, but she was grateful the trip was over and done with.
They stood within a vast marble foyer that would not have looked out of place in a bank. Vases of albino roses rested on alabaster sconces and milk-glass chandeliers hung down from a whitewashed ceiling. At the far side of the foyer stood a big bald white man wearing wire rim glasses and a snow-white three-piece suit. He turned his head, and Sasha could see that one side of his mouth curled up in a permanent sneer.
Mr. Chesterton looked grim. “Snow,” he said.
“That’s Lord Snow to you, Mr. Chesterton. You’re still a dog, I see.”
“It is an honest trade, sir. Unlike some I could mention.”
“Let us dispense with the neckties and the niceties, Chesterton,” the bald man said. “Who’s the brat?”
“This is my ward, Sasha,” said Mr. Chesterton. “Sasha, say hello to Lord Snow. Don’t get too close!” He gave Lord Snow a fierce look. “She is under my protection, sir,” he said.
Sasha curtsied, as she had been taught, and tried to say, “How do you do, Lord Snow.” But no sounds came out of her mouth.
“Cat got your tongue, my dear?” asked Lord Snow.
The hair on the back of Mr. Chesterton’s head stood up. He growled far in the back of his throat and his ears pricked forward. “I said, she’s under my protection.”
“H-h-h-how d-d-d-do y-y-you d-d-do?” said Sasha. She was annoyed at the stutter in her voice. “How do you do, Lord Snow,” she said again, forcefully. She did not curtsey this time.
The left corner of Lord Snow’s mouth went up as if he were smiling, but the right half remained straight and grim. Which side was the real Lord Snow? Sasha did not think she liked either of them very much.
“We are here for the child,” said Mr. Chesterton. “Roland.”
“Of course you are,” said Lord Snow. “He’s in my kennels. This way.” He turned on his heel and ostentatiously strode away.
“Come, dear heart,” said Mr. Chesterton. “We’ll dispose of this matter quickly, and then find ourselves someplace where we can get you a bite to eat.”
“Oh, certainly someone will get a bite,” Lord Snow said over his shoulder, “and someone else will get bitten. But who will be the diner and who the dinner, eh?” And he chuckled, as if he had just told rather a good joke.
Without comment, Mr. Chesterton accompanied Sasha down a long white marble corridor. It ought to have given the impression of purity and grace, but somehow it rankled. It gave off a smell-less stink, it rang with inaudible alarm bells. And the further she went down the corridor, the stronger Sasha’s reaction was to something she couldn’t sense.
“Mr. Ches—” she began. She glanced over at him and the words stuck in her mouth. His hackles were raised, his ears were back flat against his skull, and his lips were lifted away from his teeth in a silent and vicious snarl.
“Keep moving, my dear,” said Mr. Chesterton, between his teeth. “You are under my protection, and protect you I shall. But you must forgive my fierce demeanor–for I am under the protection of no one at all.”
Lord Snow opened a doorway at the end of the passage with a flourish. “Allow me to show you my collection,” he said, and passed within.
Perforce they followed. Mr. Chesterton went first and Sasha after.
As she passed through the doorway, however, Sasha felt a sudden flash of heat pass through her flesh. She reached down to steady herself against the doorknob and saw that her hand was no longer her own. It was the hand of an adult woman. Her nails were long and tapered and as red as blood. There was a slim gold watch on her wrist, and rings on her fingers. Suddenly she realized how tall she was–tall enough that her head almost brushed against the top of the doorframe–and how far below her was Mr. Chesterton. Her arms were very long. Her body was . . .
. . . her own again. Short. Small. A child’s.
Sasha must have made a noise, for Lord Snow said, “Stop that whining. If what you see bothers you, then perhaps we should just pluck out your eyes.”
“Be brave, child,” Mr. Chesterton murmured. “Look about you–can you see Roland?”
“I can’t see a thing. It’s too dark.”
“More of your tricks, Snow? Oh, this is unworthy of you!”
Disdainfully, Lord Snow snapped his fingers. Light flared, briefly blinding Sasha. She stood blinking until she could see again.
They were in a room larger than a railway station, with walls that curled up on either side to meet overhead in a barrel vault. The walls were lined with cages the size of large suitcases, one after the other and stacked all the way to the ceiling. When the light came on, mews and shouts and yelps arose from up and down their length, and paws and small hands were squeezed through the bars imploringly.
“Your brother is in here somewhere,” Lord Snow said. “Find him and he’s yours.”
Sasha was angry and frustrated. If she knew what her brother looked like, maybe she’d have a chance of finding him. But she had no memory of Roland whatsoever.
But Mr. Chesterton did. And Mr. Chesterton was here with her, and on her side. He would take care of everything. He would–
Then she saw that Mr. Chesterton had abandoned his two-legged posture. He was sitting at Lord Snow’s feet, rump down and front legs straight. His tongue lolled and his tail thumped heavily on the floor. Lord Snow, for his part, had unlocked a mahogany liquor cabinet that stood all by itself in the center of the room, and removed from it a cut-crystal double old-fashioned glass and a dusty bottle with just a splash of amber liquid sloshing about the bottom.
Lord Snow uncorked the bottle. “This is the last bottle of Fomorian whisky in existence. It predates Scotland. Indeed, it was ancient when Atlantis first emerged from the waters.” The liquor he poured into the glass was a golden-red topaz with hints of flame at its heart. When the bottle was empty, he placed the glass in the back of an empty cage. “It’s yours if you can get it out before the door snaps shut.”
Mr. Chesterton turned his back on the cage. “How little you understand me, Snow. It is true that I enjoy a nip of the good stuff now and again. But my passion is reserved for duty. ‘I could not love hard drink so much, loved I not honor more,’ as the poet said. So, you see –”
All in one blur of an instant, Mr. Chesterton threw his cane directly at Lord Snow, whirled about, and raced full-tilt into the cage. Simultaneously, the cane shattered into a thousand shards of glass and the cage rattled with the force of him hitting its back. Faster than lightning, he pushed off against the wall and out to freedom again–almost.
The door snapped shut and Mr. Chesterton was caught.
He looked up at Sasha, his expression stricken. Tears of guilt and shame ran down his cheeks and into the glass of whisky he still held.
Lord Snow reached through the bars and took the glass from him. He held it up to the light, admiring its color, now a granular and undistinguished grey. Then he drank it down in one gulp. “Humbug and humiliation! What could taste better?” He turned to Sasha. “This was your second test and you failed it, miserable child. Such a pathetic little whelp you are.”
“What test? I didn’t do anything.”
“Exactly. Your task, whether you knew it or not, was to keep Chesterton away from the drink, and you failed.” His disdain was absolute. “Had it been my job, and my dog, I would not have failed to control him, dissolute and dipsomaniac though he be. Mr. Chesterton, as you call him, is now my chattel.” He grabbed Sasha by the back of her dress, just behind her neck, and hoisted her painfully to her tiptoes. “As are you. Later, I will take you to the Terminus. But for now–”
He thrust her into a cage, halfway up one of the walls. A snap of his fingers summoned two liveried servants, who wheeled away the cage that held Mr. Chesterton.
* * *
The cage into which Sasha had been shoved smelled bad and it was very dim. Sasha wasn’t sure what was in the cage above her, but it snarled a warning when she bumped her head against the overhead bars. There was a stiff rug on the bottom of the cage overhead, which was just as well, although that undoubtedly was what smelled. She was livid with anger and frustration, and now she had no hope that Mr. Chesterton would take charge. She wanted to throw herself against the bars and thrash her arms and kick at the lock and scream and make everyone within earshot miserable. But before she could do so, a voice from the lightless cage beside hers said, “Hello. My name is Roland, what’s yours?”
“Roland?” Reason told Sasha the name could have been mere coincidence. The way her heart leapt up at the sound of his voice assured her it was not. “I’m your sister, Sasha.”
“I have a sister?”
“Yes,” Sasha said firmly. “Me. I came all the way up the Winter Tree to rescue you.” Her heart sank again. “Not that I’ve done a very good job of it. Now we’re both locked in these cages and unable to get out.”
“Oh, I figured out how to get out of these cages a long time ago.”
“What? Then why are you still here?”
“Well, I have no place else to go, and no way to get there either. Do you?”
Into Sasha’s mind flashed the friendly face of the Pullman porter who had promised her a ride home. Surely Mr. Big Bill–or his Brotherhood–wouldn’t mind extending the courtesy to her brother as well?
“I do,” she said.
Sasha waited. After a time, there came a glimmer of light from her brother’s cage. Slowly it grew, and by it she could see that he had plunged his hand into his own chest and was now extracting something from within. It was so large that his hand could barely hold it and it seemed to be made of light. It looked like a heart and it beat like a heart, but somehow Sasha knew it was something more.
“It’s my soul,” Roland explained. “I don’t think we’re supposed to be able to do this, but I figured out how anyway.”
His soul was free now. He touched it to the lock.
The door flew open.
Roland touched the soul to Sasha’s lock and the door of her cage opened as well. He cupped the soul in his hands for a few seconds, staring at it intently. Then he patted it and put it back into his chest, which glowed with a dim and lessening light. He smiled shyly at Sasha. “Lead the way.” He seemed to be a nice boy.
* * *
They climbed down the wall of cages, while the children within cursed and spat at them. There didn’t seem to be any good children in the cages, which simultaneously made Sasha feel better for not freeing them as well, and made her wonder if maybe she wasn’t as good a girl as she’d always thought–else, why would she be there? She was glad when they reached the doorway out and could put the child-kennels behind them.
As her hand closed on the doorway, she again felt a flash of heat and saw her hand grown long and elegant. Reflexively, she glanced toward Roland to make sure he was all right . . . and saw a tall, slim grownup in a tailored suit. He smiled down at her, fondly and with just a touch of sadness.
She blinked in astonishment and, where the stranger had been, she saw only Roland, staring worriedly at her.
“Stop woolgathering,” he said. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
They ran down the corridor, through its not-smells and unfelt pains. Faster and faster they went, until it seemed to Sasha that she was racing full-tilt down a long and steepening slope. Her hair flew out behind her, like Alice’s in the caucus-race, and still Roland sped up, tugging her after him down the corridor, which kept bending away from them until suddenly Sasha realized that she wasn’t running any longer but falling.
“Roland!” she cried. “What’ll we do?”
“Keep calm,” Roland said in a surprisingly mature voice. “It’s rather fun, don’t you think? Perhaps there will be cotton candy for us when we finish.”
Sasha had to admit that if she thought of it as a game or an amusement ride, it was indeed rather fun. But it wasn’t an amusement ride! It was real, and Lord Snow was undoubtedly behind it.
Roland twisted around as he tumbled down. “Use your imagination, Sister Sasha! Perhaps there’s a big pile of cushions below us. Or a haystack! I would love to land in a haystack. Maybe we’ll fall into an enormous pile of soft, fluffy snow”–Sasha shivered–“only warm, you see. Warm snow! Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“How can you think those things?” she cried. “It makes no sense!” She wondered if the time he spent in the cage had unhinged his mind. Since she had had no recollections of him, she had no way of knowing whether he had always been such a cheery fellow. Mr. Chesterton, although he took a very positive attitude, had generally leavened it with a reassuring grumpiness.
“Not everything makes sense,” Roland said. “I thought about this in the cage. For one thing, playing with trains–what’s the sense in that? Tiny little people made of metal, with tiny metal coats and hats.” He waved his hands, which made him tumble faster, and shouted back at her, “Toy trains don’t go anywhere. Coats and hats and people are not metal!”
Then he stretched out his jacket to slow himself down, almost like a parachute, and took a deep breath. “But a real train that goes straight up the Winter Tree is not necessarily an improvement. It ought to be, but somehow it’s just not! So what I think is this: There are things in life make no sense at all, but that’s no reason not to enjoy them.”
Sasha was trying to make sense of her brother’s words when suddenly–just as he had predicted–they fell (whoomp!) onto an enormous pile of soft, fluffy cushions.
“There you are. I must say it took you long enough to get here.” Out of the darkness loomed a strangely familiar figure. “Let me just light a candelabrum, so we can see what we shall see.” A match skritched. Shadows danced. Sasha saw the speaker.
It was Aunt Adelaide.
* * *
“I suppose you’re full of questions,” Aunt Adelaide said. “I know I would be, were I in your place. Very well, then, I’ll answer them all, and then it’s back to your cages with the both of you.” She fell silent. Then, arching an eyebrow, “Well?”
“I–” Sasha began.
“Stop!” Roland cried. He stepped between her and Aunt Adelaide, as if the old woman were a physical danger that Sasha had to be protected from. “No. We have no questions whatsoever. We don’t want to know and we’re not going to ask.”
“Really?” The old woman’s grin was wide and froglike, her teeth pointy, her lips and tongue bright red. Her face grew ghostly white. And snap!– just like that!– it was obvious that she was in no way human. Under her gaze Roland fanned out like a hand of cards into dozens of Rolands, swelling up on one side from small boys to tall men and dwindling down on the other side, older and older, to a hairless, wizened old figure that was not identifiably male or female. Aunt Adelaide reached out with impossibly long arms and shuffled the Rolands vigorously. Then she dealt out three, one on top of the other.
First a toddler. “Shall I tell you whether you’ll always be safe and loved?”
Then a grown man. “Or whether your darling Victoria will always be faithful to you or not?”
Finally, Roland as he was now. “Or whether you will ever find the real Aunt Adelaide?” Then, in a deceptively gentle voice, “Or your mother and father?”
All the Rolands collapsed into one angry little boy. “No! We don’t want to hear anything that you have to tell us.”
Sasha pushed Roland out of her way. “It’s easy for you to say that,” she said heatedly. “You don’t remember any of them. But I do.” She turned on the false Aunt Adelaide. “So–yes! I want to know what you did with Mother and Father and Grandmother and Aunt Adelaide. I want to know what I have to do to get them back. Tell me!”
The inhuman red-tongued grin broadened, but the voice was as kindly and solicitous as ever. “Why, child,” she said, shaking her head. “My dear, dear child, we killed them. We came out of the mirrors and we killed them all. Now they’re dead and they’re never coming back. It’s possible you’ll still manage to rescue yourselves, though I wouldn’t bet money on it. You might even manage to save Mr. Chesterton, quixotic though that would be. But you’ll never, ever see your parents again. Even Lord Snow himself couldn’t arrange that. I’m quite sure that you’ll never even find their corpses.”
The shock of her words hit Sasha with all the force of a slap. Her flesh turned as stinging cold as Arctic ice. All the world grew small and distant and still. It felt as though she were turning to stone.
“That’s right, dear, hold it all in,” the creature cooed. She was softening and sagging, so that she no longer looked like Aunt Adelaide; her hair had turned to white foam and her dress to whipped cream. But needle-sharp teeth still gleamed from the dark cavern of her mouth. “Wrap it up tight and hard. Taste the pain. Savor it. Let it encompass you and sink down through your flesh and bones to the very core of your being. Let it become you and you become it. Give it all your love and–”
“Demon!” Roland screamed, pushing between her and Sasha. He plunged his hand into his chest and pulled out his beating, glowing soul. He held it up before him. “Stay away from her!”
But the mound-of-foam-woman was not put off for an instant. Chuckling, she reached out a grasping cloud-wisp of a hand. “Is that for me? Oh, what a good little boy you are! Give Auntie some sugar.”
Seeing his mistake, Roland pulled back his soul, stumbling and almost falling. But streams of spume and wind-drift flowed from his opponent’s skirts, twining around and behind him, sprouting more and more long, tentacular arms. “Roland!” Sasha cried, jolted out of her paralysis. “Hide it, put it back inside yourself!”
Wispy tentacles wrapped themselves around Roland’s legs and torso and tightened about his chest, blocking him from simply replacing the soul in its original receptacle. So, desperately, he stuffed the heart into his mouth and swallowed it whole. His skin turned grey and he clutched at his throat, choking.
He doubled over in pain.
Sasha ran through the scattering foam to her brother.
Then he straightened. Roland was no longer himself but an adult, tall and handsome, self-possessed and imperially lean. He shook his head, marveling. “Oh, Sister Sasha, were you ever that young? You always seemed so much older in my eyes. Older, and wiser too. How strange to meet you like this.”
Sasha was a little afraid of this man, kindly though he sounded. “Are you really my brother Roland?”
“Well . . . yes and no,” the man said. “But explanations can wait. Right now we have bigger matters in the kettle.” Roland-the-Adult planted his feet solidly on the ground and began walking down the hall, holding Sasha by the hand, so that she trailed behind him like a balloon. He seemed to be in no particular hurry.
“Shouldn’t we be running?” Sasha asked timidly.
“That’s just what Lord Snow wants us to do–run as fast as ever we can and strive forever to outdo ourselves. No, the time for that is over. Instead, we shall linger,” her adult brother said. “Linger just as hard as we can.”
In a leisurely and yet ultimately efficient manner, they passed through the labyrinthine passages of Tesseract House, coming at last to its front entrance and throwing the doors open upon the dark, star-dusted darkness. “Deep breath,” Roland said. “I’ll meet you on the other side.”
Then he flung her into the void.
* * *
Sasha’s second flight through the frigid vacuum was painful, difficult, and not much different from her first. She tumbled and tumbled, struggling to hold her breath and keep her courage for what seemed far too long a time . . . and then she landed with a light bounce on a familiar platform. She was back at the Terminus.
Her brother was nowhere to be seen.
Pressing herself against the wall, out of the way of foot traffic, Sasha watched the train workers going about their jobs. She thought about what Roland had said: They did look a bit like they were made of tin. Conductors and redcaps bustled about. Engineers and brakemen strode past purposively. In the booths, Plasticine vendors sold magazines, cigarettes, hot dogs, coffee, and even tiny souvenir Tesseract Houses in snow globes. Over a tremendous desk marked Information there was a train schedule that read:
ALGOL Track Seven
BETELGEUSE Track Fourteen
DENEB-VEGA-ALTAIR Track Ten
FOMALHAUT Track Three
MIZAR Track Twelve
PROCYON Track Thirty-Four
VINDEMIATRIX Track Six
Then all the letters spun around, making a clacking noise, and when they finished spinning there was a new entry at the very bottom of the list:
HOME Track One
She was about to go to the information desk to ask where she could find Track One when a redcap brushed past her. Though his uniform was different from that of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Workers, his face was very similar to that of Mr. Big Bill. Not pausing, he nodded meaningfully at Sasha, and in his wake there was piece of paper in her hand.
Sasha turned her back on the crowd before looking. It was a page torn from a comic book, folded in four. Carefully, she opened it up, hoping it would be from one of the Mr. Chesterton books, simply because it would be so very good to see his face again.
But it wasn’t. It was from the comic about Yaa Asantewaa Warrior Queen. In the first panel, she was slogging through a jungle swamp, trees hanging down ropes of moss and vines. She wore huge golden earrings and had a band of gold around her forehead. You could see by her expression that she was very tired, and in the gloom above her hung the image of the Ejisuhene, the rightful ruler of Ejisu, whom she had sworn to free from exile and return to his throne. In the next panel, a tremendous crocodile lurked. In the third, its enormous jaws opened directly in front of Yaa Asantewaa. She drew her sword and thrust downward, into its skull, with a resounding SKLUNNK! The enormous creature thrashed in its death-throes, and Yaa Asantewaa grabbed a trailing vine to pull herself up and over the dying croc. But wait! The innocent-looking vine turned out to be a mammoth python! Yaa Asantewaa struggled as the huge snake wrapped itself around her. She distracted it by biting its tail! It fought ferociously, but at last she strangled it. The swamp was quiet now, and she was alone. The final panel was a close-up drawing of her face, full of lines and sagging flesh. She was an old woman, Sasha saw with surprise, worn and wrinkled. She looked exhausted, but she also looked defiant. Ranged about her were three thought balloons.
The first read: “I Must Go On.”
The second: “I Can’t Go On.”
And the third: “I’ll Go On.”
Abruptly, Sasha felt a chill, as if a cold draft had hit the back of her neck. She looked around, half-expecting to see a python. On the far side of the station was Lord Snow! Without looking down, Sasha refolded the comic book page and, since girls’ dresses didn’t have pockets, slid it into her sleeve.
There was a cart full of luggage nearby. Sasha slipped behind it. Then, slowly and cautiously, she peeked around the side. Lord Snow was busying himself with a large steamer trunk, snapping the latches to make sure they were fastened. The trunk had a mesh inset on its side, which meant, Sasha reasoned, that whatever was in it was alive.
Lord Snow gestured imperiously to a man in a grey and red uniform. “Redcap!”
The man hurried to him. “Yessir, Lord Snow?”
“Put this case in my private car immediately. Track One.” He gave the redcap a dime.
“Yessir!” the porter said briskly, touching his hat.
“Waste of shelf space is what I call it,” Lord Snow grumbled to no one in particular. “I don’t know why I don’t simply have him put down.”
Sasha watched as the redcap dollied the trunk to the train at the end of the platform and hoisted it up into a private car. Sasha ducked into a nearby passenger car and waited, cautious, but steeled by the thought of Yaa Asantewaa, until the man left. Then she slid open the door at the end of the car, darted across the coupling that joined the two cars, opened the other door, and stepped into Lord Snow’s domain.
* * *
It was a very fancy car, all white inside, with studded white leather paneling on the walls and a matching club chair by the entrance. An alabaster ashtray stood sentry by the chair on a slender brass column. There was a polar bear skin rug atop an oriental carpet woven from threads the colors of ivory and eggshell and beach sand, forming patterns so pale and intricate that they swam in her vision. At the far end of the car was a sort of baggage cage, to keep luggage from moving around if the train stopped abruptly. In it was the trunk that Sasha had seen outside.
The door to the cage was unlocked.
Taking a deep breath, Sasha slipped within the cage. She rapped her knuckles on the trunk, and something moved inside. “Roland?” she asked. There was silence and then a small sneeze. The darkness inside shifted sadly, and Mr. Chesterton’s snout pressed up against the screen.
“Oh, Mr. Chesterton, I’m so glad to see you!” Sasha whispered. But he didn’t say a word. He just looked at her through red-rimmed eyes. One by one Sasha undid the buckles and unsnapped the latches. She saw that his jacket and trousers were gone, and that he now wore a white leather collar. He emerged walking on all fours.
He was a just a dog again.
“Oh, no!” Sasha cried, hugging him. “What did he do to you?” Mr. Chesterton didn’t answer. His eyes were pools of misery. He didn’t even wag his tail.
A low rumble shook the floor as the distant locomotive powered up. Time to leave. “Heel,” Sasha said, and led Mr. Chesterton out of the baggage cage: Thank goodness he’d had obedience training.
Then the door to the forward car slid open and a large, rather handsome uniformed man stepped through it, a set of bed linens draped over his arm.
“Mr. Big Bill!”
The porter was as surprised as she was. “Miss Sasha!” He looked down at the dog. “Oh, Mr. Chesterton, sir,” he said reproachfully. “Not again!” Putting down the linens, Big Bill seized Mr. Chesterton’s collar. “We’ll have to move fast. If Lord Snow were to come upon us now, he would most assuredly –”
“Most assuredly what?” Lord Snow said, stepping into the car.
* * *
Lord Snow was followed closely by Aunt Adelaide. She in turn held Roland by one ear, hauling the unhappy child after her. The space behind them was thronged with elves, their eyes glittering with inhuman malice.
“Well,” Aunt Adelaide said, “we’re all gathered together at last. Isn’t that nice?”
Lord Snow sat with heavy dignity in the white leather armchair and, when Aunt Adelaide flung Roland down on the floor before him, placed one foot on the boy’s head. “Behave yourself,” Adelaide said, “or my master will pop your head like a grape. Look terrified if you understand.”
Roland looked terrified.
“Excellent.” She turned to Sasha. “The trial will begin. You may now plead guilty.”
“This spiteful little chit won’t cooperate.” Aunt Adelaide turned to Lord Snow in appeal. He said nothing, though. His face was as impassive as snowfields at midnight, as cold as the moon in February. Behind him, the elves were a shifting, murmurous sea of whiteness. She sighed heavily. “Well, if I must I must.”
Turning to Sasha, she said, “We’re going to play a little guessing game. You like games, don’t you? Of course you do, all children love games. I’m going to ask you a question, and you’re going to guess at its answer. You will have three tries. If you guess right, you may leave.” The elves, whispering and giggling among themselves behind Lord Snow, parted so that Sasha could see a mirror on the wall behind them. Its reflection showed not the train car but the parlor room back home. There were toys scattered about on the rug and a big mound of wrapping paper in the fireplace, where it would later be used for tinder. Her heart ached at the sight.
“But if not–well. Lord Snow has to eat, doesn’t he?”
Somehow, Lord Snow seemed to have faded into the background elves, so that his outline was indistinct and his features, though tremendously large, were difficult to make out. He looked less like a human being than like a vast and lifeless wasteland of ice and rock. Sasha imagined that if she were picked up and thrown at his face, she would fall into it, freezing, forever.
“This isn’t fair!” Big Bill cried, his face dark with anger. “You’re not giving this child the slightest chance. This is a mockery of justice.”
“I’m so glad you understand,” Aunt Adelaide said sweetly. She silenced him with a glare, and turned back to Sasha.
“Here is your question, child: What is stronger than reality?”
“It’s imagination,” Sasha said firmly. She was on solid ground here, and she knew it. Her teachers and books had many times told her as much.
Aunt Adelaide smiled maddeningly, condescendingly. “Imagine your way out of this!” She slapped Sasha so hard that for an instant Sasha forgot who she was. When she came to, one side of her face stung worse than nettles and the ice-desert had wrapped itself entirely around her. All that remained of the train car were the carpet underfoot and the mirror in its gilded frame, resting against a distant boulder. “Try again.”
Sasha thought long and hard. “Is it . . . love?”
“Oh! Love!” Adelaide held up her hands in a mockery of delight. “What was it the Bard of Avon said? Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love. If you think love is stronger than reality, then try loving your parents alive again. Love your brother out of Lord Snow’s bondage. Love Mr. Chesterton back into his proper self.” Flurries of snow blew past, dusting her hair and settling on her dress. She brushed the flakes from one shoulder and then the other. “You have one last, futile guess.”
Terror made Sasha’s mind go blank. She looked pleadingly to Mr. Chesterton for help–but he was still no useful than any other dog. Mr. Big Bill’s face was filled with compassion and worry for her. But he said nothing. And out in the bleak and infinite snowlands, half-crushed under a tremendous slab of ice that almost seemed (if you looked at it right; if you squinted) to be shaped like a foot, Roland was–
Roland was trying to tell her something.
She could see it in his eyes. Roland knew something! Now he was working his face, trying to unfreeze its muscles. He swallowed several times. At last he managed to croak, “Sasha! Mr. Chesterton is only a dog! And we’re not–”
With a loud crack, the slab of ice sagged down several inches. A look of astonishment and pain appeared on Roland’s face and the words froze in his mouth.
And that was that. Roland had almost managed to tell her something. But he had failed.
Or had he? Sasha had looked to everybody else for help. Now she looked at herself, down at her hands. They were ordinary hands, a child’s hands, their nails chewed and their palms not overly clean. But in Tesseract House she had seen them differently. There, they had been long and red-nailed, with rings on her fingers and an elegant Longines watch on her wrist.
How did she know the watch’s make? How did she know the rings on that hand, which ones had the valuable stones and which she wore only out of sentiment? How did she know that her nails were painted Vamp Red?
Sasha looked at Mr. Chesterton, trying hard to see him as her brother did. Not as her guardian angel, nor as her savior, nor as a niceums little doggums. But as he was. “You are only a dog,” she said at last, “and it was foolish of me to expect a dog to rescue me. Not from a situation as complicated as this.” Roland still looked anxious, but it seemed to her that there was a touch of hope in his eyes. She turned to Big Bill. “You’re a very nice man. But you’re not a comic-book hero, are you?”
The porter nodded and said, “I strive to do my job in a courteous and professional manner, and to comport myself at all times with dignity. But I can make no claim to being anything other than a human being.”
“So I’m going to have to save myself. I’m not going to make a third guess–”
“That’s good, child.” Aunt Adelaide said. “Despair is a virtue; embrace it if you can.” She opened her arms to welcome Sasha in.
But Sasha wasn’t falling for that. “I’m not going to guess because I know the answer.”
“Oh? What, then, is it?”
There was a long, chill silence, as if all the universe were holding its breath. Aunt Adelaide’s eyes were two glittering chips of ice, unreadable.
“Understanding is stronger than truth, because it allows us to endure truth. I am not a child.” That was what Roland had tried so hard to tell her – that they were not children. “Nor is Roland. We’re adults. Our parents are dead. I’m going to die too. Someday Lord Snow will take me and Roland and everything and everybody I love and this is part and parcel of being alive. A child can’t understand this, but an adult must. It’s the way things are and probably even the way things ought to be. I don’t have to like it. But neither should I allow it to fill me with fear.” Not as a question, she said, “Am I wrong?”
Aunt Adelaide had grown progressively paler as Sasha spoke, until now she was entirely without color, a woman sculpted of snow.
Then she crumbled.
* * *
Roland came trudging out of the wastes, grinning, carrying the mirror over his head. Barking loudly, Mr. Chesterton ran to meet him. Roland put down the mirror, leaning it carefully against a snow bank. Then, with the dog dancing about his knees, he hugged his sister. He was an adult now, but that was all right for so was she. “You were magnificent!” he said. “You did so much better than I ever could have.”
“I consider myself privileged to have been your friend.” Big Bill solemnly shook Sasha’s hand. “You’ll want to have this, I imagine.” He handed her a copy of The Adventures of Mr. Chesterton. On the cover, girl-Sasha and boy-Roland were open-mouthed with shock as Mr. Chesterton, hanging his head in shame, said, “Lord Snow Is A Frost Giant . . . And My Father!”
Sasha flipped the book open to the very last page. There, a defeated-looking Lord Snow stood before a triumphant Mr. Chesterton, weeping. A word bubble said, “You’re My Son, Chesterton. Why Won’t You Love Me?”
In the next panel, Mr. Chesterton gestured, and fragments of ice came swarming together to combine to form a glass cane in his hand. “Oh My Goodness, Father,” he said. “Of Course I Love You. I Always Have. I Simply Don’t Approve Of Your Actions of Late.”
In the penultimate panel, the cane came down on Lord Snow’s bald pate with a sharp thump. Finally, that vile creature fell back, clutching his head, and Roland, Sasha, and Mr. Chesterton strode past him, hand in hand in paw, to step through the mirror leading back to their home, their family, their parents, their lives.
Sasha could not help but smile. “It’s a sweet story,” she said. “But I’m not a child anymore.” She handed back the comic book and said, “Promise me you’ll take good care of Mr. Chesterton.”
“I always have, Miss Sasha. I always have.”
Swiftly, Sasha kissed Mr. Big Bill on the cheek. She stooped down to rub Mr. Chesterton’s head the way he particularly liked and laughed when he enthusiastically licked her face in return. Then she turned to Roland. “Are you coming? I think we’re done here.”
They stepped through the mirror.
* * *
The phone call came as it did every year when the weather turned cold and winter was in the air.
“Well, Sister Sasha? Are we on?”
“When have I ever failed you? I’ve already made the reservations.”
Sasha and Roland met in the Four Seasons as was their custom, to reminisce and talk over old times. They and their siblings were all grown now, with children of their own. But every year, when the holidays rolled around, they all put their families aside for a few hours so they could talk of things that only they four in all the world had in common. Roland and Sasha, however, were careful to always show up first.
“So. Did you put up a Winter Tree?” Sasha asked.
Roland smiled down into his martini. “Well, as always, I said we wouldn’t. And of course the children wouldn’t hear of it. Everyone has a tree, they said. Which isn’t true, but you can’t argue facts with children. I suggested–quite reasonably, I thought–that the time spent decorating a tree could be put to better use in other ways. Preparing a special dinner, perhaps, or helping out at the food bank. I tried sweetening the deal by offering to let them stay up late so they could see the moon at midnight and look for spectral reindeer. But the children wouldn’t hear of it. You’d have thought I was Ebenezer Vinegar Grinch, the way they carried on.”
Sasha laughed. “Oh, I can hear the arguments now! So you caved in.”
“To my children? I most certainly did not. But Victoria put her hands on her hips and gave me the Look. Then she told the kids, ‘Don’t listen to your father, he has no idea what he’s talking about.’ And she said to me, ‘We’ve had this conversation before, and it always ends the same way.’ So of course, there was nothing to be done, and up the tree went. How did it go with you?”
“Oh, I tried. But James gave me that puppy-dog look and, well, I just folded. As far as Stanley and Keisha were concerned, there’d never been any doubt we’d have one.”
“I hate those things,” Roland said.
“Me too. But what can you do? The world is a dangerous place, but we won’t always be there to protect them. So I suppose they have to learn. One way or another.”
“Amen, sister. Alas.”
Then Zoë and Benjamin arrived together–they’d met by chance at Grand Central Station, they said, and shared a cab–and sat down, and ordered drinks and the menus, and the conversation shifted in tone. They talked and talked, about Mother and Father and Grandmother and Great-Aunt Adelaide, and even about Mr. Chesterton, what a wonderful pup. They looked back on a common childhood that glowed in their memories as bright as the Garden of Eden, and which was, like the Garden, gone beyond retrieval, an alien land whose inhabitants were as unreachable as if they’d all been killed by elves.
It was the best part of the holidays, this conversation. It always was. They all four cherished it. They laughed until they cried.
Copyright © 2010 by Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn