“Welcome to the Hooflands. We’re happy to have you, even if you being here means something’s coming.”
A young girl discovers a portal to a land filled with centaurs and unicorns in Seanan McGuire’s Across the Green Grass Fields, a standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-wining Wayward Children series—arriving January 12th from Tordotcom Publishing.
“Welcome to the Hooflands. We’re happy to have you, even if you being here means something’s coming.”
Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.
When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to “Be Sure” before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines—a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.
But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…
There Was a Little Girl
At seven, Regan Lewis was perfectly normal according to every measurement she knew, which meant she was normal in every way that counted. She wasn’t short or tall, not skinny or fat, but average in all directions, with hair the color of straw and eyes the color of the summer sky. She liked spinning circles in the field behind her house until her head spun and the world turned deliciously dizzy, like it was humming a song she couldn’t hear well enough to sing along to. She liked to read and draw and build palaces of mud, which she populated with frogs and crawdads and other creatures from the local creek. She loved her parents, and was only a little sad that so many of her friends had baby brothers and big sisters, while she had herself, and her parents, and a black-and-white cat named Mr. Buttons in honor of the three perfectly round black spots on his otherwise perfectly white chest.
Although sometimes her friends would come to school complaining about one or another horrible thing their brothers and sisters had done, and she would think maybe a cat named Mr. Buttons was the best sort of brother.
But most of all, more than anything else in the world, more than even her parents (although thoughts like that made her feel so guilty the soles of her feet itched), Regan loved horses.
She couldn’t say exactly why she loved them so much, only that she did, and thankfully, “girls and horses” was enough of a thing that adults said it knowingly when they saw her doodling ponies in the margins of her math workbook, or when she went high-stepping around the athletic field like a quarter horse doing dressage. Loving horses didn’t make her strange, and strange was something to be feared and avoided above all else in the vicious political landscape of the playground, where the slightest sign of aberration or strangeness was enough to bring about instant ostracization.
That was something adults couldn’t understand, not even when they understood other things, like a love of horses or a burning need to go to the state fair, lest a lack of funnel cake lead to gruesome and inescapable death. They thought children, especially girl children, were all sugar and lace, and that when those children fought, they would do so cleanly and in the open, where adult observers could intervene. It was like they’d drawn a veil of fellow-feeling and good intentions over their own childhoods as soon as they crossed the magic line into adulthood, and left all the strange feuds, unexpected betrayals, and arbitrary shunnings behind them.
Regan thought it must be nice, to believe children were innocent angels incapable of intrigue or cruelty. She would have liked to believe that. But she had two major barriers between her and that happy ignorance:
Heather Nelson and Laurel Anderson.
The three of them had been the best of friends in kindergarten and into the first months of first grade. They had liked the same games and the same fairy tales, even if Laurel always got to be Snow White when they played princesses, and Regan always had to be the Little Mermaid, who couldn’t talk or run or do the princess dance, because she didn’t get to have legs until a prince came along and kissed her. They had liked the same colors and the same cookies and sometimes they all held hands at naptime, an inseparable circle of girls hurling themselves against the walls of the world.
But then, three months into first grade, Heather had come to school with a garter snake in her lunch box. It had been a beautiful thing, grass-green with golden stripes down the sides of its body, narrow as a ribbon, twisting and twining in Heather’s hand when she brought it out at recess, making a strange, musky smell that was neither pleasant nor foul, but simply part of the great mystery of the snake itself. Regan had almost reached for it, and caught herself only when she saw the expression of profound, disapproving disgust on Laurel’s face. She had taken an involuntary step backward, putting Laurel between herself and Heather, like the other girl could become a wall, a protective barrier, a way to escape the storm that was certainly coming.
“What is that?” Laurel had demanded, in the high, judgmental tone she normally reserved for bad smells and noisy boys.
Regan had looked intently at Heather, hoping to hear an answer that would somehow satisfy Laurel, that would make all this go away and put things back the way they’d been when she’d rolled out of bed this morning. But Heather had always been stubborn. This confrontation had been building for years, one small rebellion at a time. She had squared her shoulders, set her jaw, and looked Laurel in the eye, not flinching away.
“A garter snake,” she’d said. “I found it in the garden when I went out to pick tomatoes. I think it was hunting beetles. That’s what they eat when they’re this little. Beetles and baby mice and sometimes grasshoppers. Do you want to hold it?” She’d thrust her arm out then, the snake still twined like a ribbon through her fingers, beautiful and somehow otherworldly at the same time, each scale like a glimmering jewel.
Laurel had recoiled and slapped the snake out of Heather’s hand, a disgusted “ew” escaping her lips. Regan’s gasp had been swallowed by Heather’s cry of dismay as she lunged to recover her prize, followed by a squeal of pain when the snake, feeling ill-treated, bit her finger. She’d let it go then, turning to Laurel as it escaped into the waving grass of the kickball field, cradling her hand to her chest. Beads of blood had welled up on her index finger, and Regan had stared at them, transfixed.
This is what it costs to be different, she’d thought, the words clear and somehow older than the rest of her, like she was hearing the voice of the woman she was eventually going to become. She’d shuddered then, still unable to look away.
“Why did you do that?” Heather had asked, voice small and wounded. “It was just a little snake. That’s all.”
“Girls don’t play with disgusting things like that,” Laurel had snapped. “Regan, come on. We’re going.”
And she had grabbed Regan by the wrist and pulled her toward the school, leaving Heather alone with her blood and tears. Regan had looked back once, and that night she lay awake in her bed for hours, shivering with shock. She hadn’t known what to say or do in the moment, or how to stem the tide of Laurel’s rage, which had been so primal, so fundamental, that it was impossible to question. She knew even without asking that Heather was no longer a part of the trusted inner circle: she had performed girlhood incorrectly and hadn’t instantly mended her ways when confronted with Laurel’s anger. She was out.
That impression had been confirmed in the days to come, as Laurel walked through classes and recess and even lunch hour without seeming aware of Heather’s presence, her hand locked firmly around Regan’s wrist, tugging her into a future that had no place for girls who got their shoes muddy and played with snakes. Heather had tried, at first, to remind her old friends that she was still there; she had worn her prettiest dresses, the ones Laurel had approved of in the past, she had brought her nicest dolls to school, she had cajoled her mother into baking boxes of brownies which she offered to the other girls with shaking hands. None of it made any impression on Laurel, who had looked through her former friend as if she wasn’t even there, tightening her grip on Regan’s wrist like she was afraid Regan might also rebel against the box Laurel had drawn for them to share.
Eventually, Heather had given up on approaching them, her eyes going dull as the immensity of her transgression sank in. They had been a closed unit for so long that none of the other girls their age were looking for new friends—or if they were, they were also sensible enough to fear the wrath of Laurel, who had a way of destroying anyone who got in her way. Even some of the boys were afraid of her.
It was almost three months after the snake incident when the doorbell rang and Regan bounded down the stairs to answer the door. It would probably be the mailman with a bunch of bills and advertising circulars, but there might be a letter or a postcard or even a package, and even when those things weren’t for her, it was exciting to be the first one to touch them. “I’ve got it!” she yelled, and wrenched the door open.
Heather, standing miserably on the front step with her mother’s hand on her shoulder, blinked at her. Heather’s mother was less visibly miserable, but her mouth was set into a thin, hard line, like she disapproved of everything around her. “Regan,” she said in a tight voice. “Are your parents home?”
“Um.” Regan took an involuntary step backward, away from the door, as if that would protect her from whatever was going on. She didn’t like to attract the attention of adults who weren’t her parents. Too many of them had strong ideas about how children were supposed to behave—stronger even than Laurel’s, and Laurel left no room for negotiation. She looked down rather than facing Heather’s anxious, unhappy eyes or the judgment in her mother’s face. “I can get them. Do you want to come inside?”
“That would be for the best,” said Heather’s mother, and then she was inside, and then they were both inside, and Laurel was never going to let her hear the end of this. Regan took another step backward before spinning on her heel and fleeing down the hall, to the porch where her parents sat, sipping from tall glasses of iced tea while they talked about whatever boring things adults had to talk about when their children weren’t around.
Her mother’s head snapped up in alarm as the back door swung shut. She knew Regan wouldn’t interrupt them without good warning, being sensibly concerned that she might be tasked with additional chores or—worse—walk in on them saying the sort of things that weren’t suited for tender young ears. Regan knew she was fortunate to have parents who loved each other as much as hers did. Laurel’s parents could barely stand to be in the same room for more than a few minutes, and Regan had been witness to several fights that should never have happened in front of a guest. So the fact that her parents still liked to murmur sweet nothings to each other was probably a good thing, but that didn’t mean she wanted to hear it.
“Heather’s, um, Heather’s here,” said Regan, twisting her hands like she thought she could spin her fingers into a rope that she could use to climb away from here. “With, um, her mother.” She looked at her feet, not at either of her parents, who were already in the process of getting to their feet, putting their glasses of iced tea down.
“Do you know why?” asked her mother, who had noticed that Heather hadn’t been coming around the way she usually did, but had been chalking it up to the kind of fights seven-year-old girls got into on their own time, strange and incomprehensible and vicious as anything. They were fights that solved themselves best when the adults stayed as far away as possible.
Cheeks burning, Regan began to shake her head. Then she caught herself, and nodded.
“Well, let’s not keep them waiting,” said her mother.
Regan led her parents to the entryway, where Heather and her mother stood, Heather’s mother still holding fast to her daughter’s shoulder. “I knew you couldn’t know anything about this, or you would have put a stop to it,” she said, without preamble.
“Put a stop to what?” asked Regan’s father in a polite but mild tone. He’d never cared for Heather’s mother, who seemed to think all the world’s problems could be resolved by shouting a little bit louder every time she opened her mouth.
Heather’s mother took a deep, slow breath, straightening as she did, like a balloon in the process of inflating. Her grip on Heather never wavered, and the taller she stood, the more Heather slumped, as if she was overwhelmed with the pressure of what was about to happen.
Regan shrank into the space between her parents, unwilling to meet Heather’s eyes.
“Bullying,” said Heather’s mother, voice like stones falling into place in front of a tomb, locking its contents away from the world. Her hand spasmed before clenching tighter on Heather’s shoulder. “Your daughter and Laurel Anderson have been bullying Heather since the start of the term. They won’t let her participate in any activities they’re part of, they’ve shut her out on the playground, and that Laurel didn’t even invite Heather to her birthday party. My daughter is a sensitive child. I want this to stop.”
“Regan?” Regan’s mother turned toward her, expression solemn. “Honey, is this true?”
To her shock and embarrassment, Regan’s eyes filled with tears. Her nose filled with snot in almost the same instant, and she tasted it on her upper lip, sticky and salty and childish. She was almost eight. She wasn’t supposed to start bawling like a baby just because her mother sounded disappointed in her.
“N-n-no!” she managed, shaking her head so hard that tears splashed to the floor. “We’re not bullying her. We’re just not playing with her anymore!”
“Honey… why not?”
“B-because Laurel says she doesn’t know how to play like a girl, and we’re girls, so we only play with people who know how to play like girls do!” said Regan, and began, desperately, to explain what had happened the day Heather brought the snake to school. She didn’t mention how beautiful the snake had been, or how much she’d wanted to touch it in the seconds between its appearance and Laurel’s loud, vocal revulsion.
By the time she finished, Heather was crying too, although her tears were more subdued than Regan’s, born less of panic and more of resignation.
“Don’t you think it might have been wrong of Laurel to treat Heather that way?” asked Regan’s mother. “There’s nothing wrong with liking snakes and bugs, and I remember when we went to the fair and you held the python all on your own, not because anybody made you. Laurel doesn’t sound like she’s being a good friend.”
Regan had known from the beginning that Laurel’s love was conditional. It came with so many strings that it was easy to get tangled inside it, unable to even consider trying to break free. Laurel’s love was a safe, if rigid, cocoon. Regan bit her lip and shook her head, unsure how to articulate any of the things she was feeling. “Laurel’s my best friend,” she said.
“Does that make it okay for her to push you around and tell you Heather can’t be your friend anymore? Is that fair? You know there’s no right way to be a girl. Destiny isn’t reality.”
Regan shook her head again, less fiercely this time. “No, it’s not fair,” she said miserably. “But she does it anyway, and she’s my best friend. If I can only have one of them, I choose Laurel. Not Heather. I choose Laurel.”
Regan’s mother frowned, filled with a sadness as vast and impossible to articulate as it was when she’d been Regan’s age and squirming under the thumb of her own playground dictatrix, because some things spin from generation to generation, and never really change, no matter how much we wish they would. She turned toward Heather and her mother.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t like this either, but refusing to play with someone isn’t bullying. It’s just being a less generous person than I would have hoped. I can’t order Regan to be friends with your daughter.”
“I told you, Mom,” said Heather, voice despairing, and wrenched her shoulder out of her mother’s grasp. “I don’t want to be friends with them anyway. They’re mean. I said I didn’t want to come here. I want to go home.” She turned and stomped out of the house, leaving her mother gaping after her.
“I really am sorry about all this,” said Regan’s mother apologetically.
“You should teach your child some better manners, before she gets herself into real trouble,” said Heather’s mother, in a clear attempt to have the last word. Then she followed her daughter out of the house, as Regan collapsed, sobbing, into her mother’s arms.
Excerpted from Across the Green Grass Fields, copyright © 2021 by Seanan McGuire.