TWICE BELOW a space, the space where Celia slept, she found, of all things, a door. It was a door in the floor, ornate and polished and handsomely crafted, the same austere door each time, and each time Celia found the door directly beneath her bed. She had not thought of the new bed in the strange new room as her own. It was not until the third morning in the new old house where she and her mother and father had moved that Celia slid the bed, squeaking on its tarnished old brass rollers, exposed the cold and elaborate door for the third time and opened it. A deep musty smell rolled out. Ornate steps descended down into a narrow winding cavern. Looking down the steep stone flagging reminded Celia of being at the top of a lighthouse. She knew that the house to which she and her parents had moved loomed strangely against the side of a hill. Like a corkscrew into a jutting face of the mountain the strange steps spiraled in. Celia poised above them.
Anything that might have been quietly slavering below would have seen the figure of a girl, a good several-to-many years old, alarmingly intelligent and possessed of an inordinate amount of bravery, appear framed in the hatch-like doorway, only to disappear, and after a brief span of time reappear, now with the additions of a large bright flashlight in her hand and a comfortable-looking pack on her back.
It seemed to Celia that she had not gone far down the steps when suddenly she noticed that the stairs had ceased to be constructed of the finely crafted timber and were instead carved steps of solid stone. Intrigued, Celia commenced to proceed further into the expanding cavern. Wildly her following shadow fluttered, dancing and sweeping along the slowly leveling stairway like black fire.
As Celia rounded a stalagmite-laden bend, something unexpected appeared. "Do not be alarmed," it said, or rather he, "but I'm the Elephant of Surprise!" Here he leaned in confidingly, "And I happen to be running away from the circus."
So sad and pleading an elephant figure did this one somehow cut that Celia found herself in no way willing to constitute a menace to his plight. "Don't worry," Celia said, "I won't rat on you."
"Wow is that ever a load off! Let's see now...originally I hail from the Disenchanted Land, but I was taken to Celupiar when I had not yet come into my tusks, and trained in the castle of Umades, far away on the other side of the forest."
"Oh?" said Celia. "And where might that forest be?"
"The one we are standing in."
"We are underground," Celia corrected.
"Well what do you suppose are these?"
"Columns of rock," Celia replied. "The ones hanging from the ceiling are called stalactites. The ones pointing up from the ground are stalagmites. When they meet, they become columns."
"That is all true, underground in caves. But that is not where we are. These are not rock trunks. These are tree trunks."
Celia inspected one more closely. Sure enough, it was a tree. They were all trees. Somehow, imperceptibly, she had emerged through an exit in the other side of the mountain. There yet remained to Celia, however, the somewhat perplexing problem, if not outright problematic perplexity, of Billy being an elephant who talked.
"Where did you say you were from again?" Celia said.
"The Disenchanted Land, originally, like yourself, I suspect, no disrespect intended, yet lo these many years a citizen of Celupiar." Billy ended here with an air that left Celia wishing she had a cap to politely doff. "I think," Billy said, "I know exactly what has happened. I think you've come through one of those portals in the witch's woods, one of those gateways you hear about every great now and again, over and over and over, over here."
"A witch? A where?"
"Widdershins! Bad news, that one! That's the witch. As for the where, it's like I've already said: Celupiar. You are in Celupiar now!"
Celia was on the point of pointing out how ridiculous this was, and how it would suit her quite well should Billy, the Elephant of Surprise, refrain from any such further nonsense, when she thought the better of this and said instead, "I understand it is a great deal of work that goes on behind a circus show."
"You know," Billy said, "it really is. You've no idea. The hours are awful. You absolutely can't hear yourself think at a circus, night and day. Forget it. And the risks, come on. Let me tell you something, you try working side-by-side with a full-grown blorter--but listen to me. Here you are, suddenly trapped in another dimension and everything, and all I can talk about is work."
Furtive scuffling sounds came in muffled snatches through the pitch-black gloom. The elephant stopped. "Quick," he said to Celia as he gently lifted her with his trunk, "climb up on my back. It's probably just hobgoblins, but you never know."
Something told Celia that with the Elephant of Surprise on her side she would be safe from whatever it was gibbering in the shadows. Yet scarcely was she aloft on the elephant's enormous head, each leg securely braced under a ponderous ear, than there emerged before Celia's eyes over the jagged silhouette of the forest a sailing vessel in the shape of a huge galleon, of Spanish aspect, held aloft by a riot of ropes and cables to a series of hot-air balloons.
"It's him!" Billy whispered. "The pirate captain, Captain Needle! Hang on!"
Nimbly Billy skated down a steep embankment, then jogged quickly and quietly along a line of trees at the base of the mountain. Celia rode silent as a shadow until the elephant blended into the forest on the other side. Looking back, Celia could see little distant blasts of light coming up from within the high trees where they had been, followed seconds after by loud exploding sounds. "I can't believe the sun hasn't come up," Celia said.
Billy laughed. "Why would it? The sun just went down."
"That's peculiar," Celia mused. "I explored the door underneath my bed at dawn, but arrived in Celupiar at dusk."
"That's because your world is backwards. You see," Billy explained, "Celupiar is the original world, the actual world of reality out of which everything else grows, including the Disenchanted Land, that which you formerly have thought to be reality. O, could you but know that actually the Disenchanted Land is but a pale imitation of Celupiar itself."
"But how did I get here? Why?"
"Instead of asking why you are here, ask why isn't something else here, or why aren't we somewhere else, or why are we not where something else isn't? It's complicated. All I know is, back in the old world, I was just an elephant. Here I'm somebody."
Just then there flew past a strange sight. In the last rays of dusk light could be seen the figures of large rabbits bounding over the low brush dotting the forest floor, rabbits bearing riders in the forms of miniature men with little swords and spears that gleamed. "The Redir!" said Billy. "Guardians of the woods. Know, Celia, that this is the place from which sprang the oldest stories, the ones that became your nursery rhymes and fairy tales."
"I thought most of those were originally political."
"Be that as it may. I see that you are wise and brave beyond your years. You really shouldn't be in Celupiar. But as long as you are here, you may as well see the Redir. Whatever your course of action should be, the Redir will be able to help you."
There suddenly appeared before them a host of the rabbit-riders. One among them raised a brawny little arm sporting a small but wicked-looking blade as he hailed forth, "Star of the Roamin' Circus, ho! We would have a word!"
"Star treatment," Billy hissed to Celia. "The guy's a fan. I get this all the time."
The rider steadied his wild-eyed mount. "I am called Kodon, accounted a good voice among the Redir, we forest folk who guard these woods. What knowledge have you of this piratical man who attacks our woods?"
"If you please, sir," Billy slobbered, "we are but humble passersby. The one you indicate, to my way of thinking that would be none other than the famed Captain Needle, by the look of yonder craft."
"Darn that Needle!" said Kodon, sheathing his sword. "I knew it. You know, I hear he was some accountant of no account trapped in the Disenchanted Land before stumbling over through one of Widdershins' gates. Now Needle has become almost part of the very fabric of Celupiar." He was very small, but his chin had a way of sticking out a great deal.
"We were wondering if you could help us," said Billy, indicating Celia, who by this time had climbed down the gently swaying trunk to the spongy forest loam.
"Needless to say," Kodon went on, hitching his belt, "we Redir have always kept an eye on Needle, for that is our forest way. And we'll always be keeping another eye out for Needle, not to put too fine a point on it."
"We were wondering if--"
"They say Needle tells a good yarn," Kodon said, stirring his rabbit to haste. "And I do hear Needle keeps his men in stitches. Have at you, Captain Needle! One of these days, we'll get you. Let's go!" In a flash of bounding legs the Redir were gone, and not a sound could be heard as they sped through the forest.
"I really expected more out of that," Billy said. "Weren't you expecting more out of that?"
"It's all right," Celia said. "When I want, I'll just go back to the part of the forest that leads from the cave. I'm sure I'll find the stairs back to my room there."
Slowly Billy shook his head. "I don't think so. There's no predicting a witch's gate. You'll never find any stairs you've ever seen before back there. Take it from me, once you're in the gate, you're through."
Celia looked at the elephant.
"That didn't come out right," Billy said.
"You pretty much seem to be walking around aimlessly," Billy said. It was morning now.
"I have no idea where I am," Celia admitted.
"Third time ye've passed this stump, I can tell ye that," came a voice.
A smallish figure, although not so small as the tallest among the Redir, waved at Celia from atop an ancient stump. He wore a tiny green hat which looked to Celia like a bowl with a bit of brim, a little green jacket with a yellow vest (a thin gold chain hung between two of the vest pockets) short green pants, a frilly white shirt and shiny brown shoes with large gold buckles. "Good day to ye," he said. "Me name's Hobnob, and that's the third time ye've passed this stump, so ye must be stumped."
Billy suddenly appeared behind Hobnob's shoulder, the surprise of which sent Hobnob jumping straight up.
"You mustn't do that," Celia said.
"You sir," Hobnob said, brushing himself off in a dignified manner, "are, me believes, currently bein' sought after by certain representatives of the famed Roamin' Circus, are ye not? Abumbo, the Elephant of Surprise?"
"This is Billy," Celia said, stepping in.
"Fret not, me sweets!" Hobnob clucked, great rosy cheeks bobbing about like apples at the end of a lazy limb. "I clasp ye to me bosom! No love be there lost between old Hobnob the hobgoblin and them there circus folk. Fret not, me sweet chucks, I'll not be a one to turn ye in. But ye see now, I needed no third pass by to tell me it were ye who were stumped, here so close to Mumpus Mountain, and in October no less. Ah yes, October," he added, "good old eighth month of the year."
"Tenth, you mean," Celia said.
"October is the tenth month of the year."
"What outlandish gibberish is this? Everyone knows October is the eighth month. Oct means eight. If ye want the tenth month, that's December."
"No, December is the twelfth month."
"Dec means ten, silly girl. Bidecber is the twelfth month. Of the thirteen in a year."
"Bidecber? Thirteen? Why, there are only twelve months in a year, as anyone knows!"
"Then what do ye call Tridecber? Look, there's Monuary, Biober, Triober; then Quadember, Penuary, and Hepuemby; then September, October, November; December, Mondecber, Bidecber, and Tridecber. There, the thirteen months in the year."
"One season has four months?"
"I don't know where ye're from missy, but if it's seasons ye want, around here four go by every day. Six to noon it's Spring; noon to six is Summer; six to midnight is Fall; and midnight to six is Winter. Spring is the time to make a Buck; Summer is the time to Wolf lunch; Fall is the time to be Ravenous for dinner; and Winter is the time to Bear the snow sleep."
"Well, I didn't know all that." Celia turned to Billy. "Did you know all that?"
Billy nodded. "It makes sense."
"It does seem to make a good deal more sense than what we've got back home," Celia said, thinking about her parents, and wondering how she would get back.
Light chat followed. Mostly about the weather, until Celia asked Hobnob, who seemed to know so much about Celupiar, "What would you advise as my best recourse in returning home?" ("Recourse" was a word she sometimes heard her parents say.)
"Well," Hobnob replied with his hand on his chin, not because he was deep in thought, but because he was picking a scab, "if it were me own same self in the selfsame spot ye be, and I knew what I know, methinks I'd advise me off to Rula, a decent witch of these hills. Ye'll get no audience from Widdershins. None ye'd want, that's plain. Only Rula could help ye. If, that is, she'd care to. If, what's more, ye could even find her."
"I know Rula," said Billy.
"Really?" Hobnob looked perplexed.
"She used to frequent the castle of Umades, which was where I grew up, mostly. There aren't that many witches in all of Celupiar, you know."
"Still, that's pretty amazin'. What be the chances?"
"Yeah, I guess so. I can take you to Rula, Celia."
"Well then," Hobnob said. "Ye has the situation quite in hand. Me had a whole bit o' bargainin' lined up to work out with ye. Could have made a real difference in me life. But, there it is. Ye won't be needin' anything from me now."
"Thanks anyway," Celia said.
Hobnob stared. "Can I come along anyway?"
"Sure," Celia said, "if you want to. But I'm not sure we'll be coming back this way. I'm not even sure where we're going."
"I know," said Billy. "It's right over there. In fact I think I see smoke coming up from her cottage. Just right there. See?"
Sure enough, there it was. A thin thread of smoke winding up among the trees. "Yes," Billy said, "if you've ever wondered what the smoke from a witch's cottage looks like, there it is."
"Sorry to say," Hobnob said, "me so dislikes that sort of self-important and obvious observation. Please don't do that again."
Celia strode straight toward the strange home from whence the lazy trail of smoke issued and found, to her delight, a topiary of vivid green vegetation grown into shapes resembling a motley array of not particularly attractive children.
"These weeds," Celia heard the now trying sound of an unseen agent addressing her, "they're growing just like children."
"Your weeds are growing like children? Excuse me, ma'am," Celia said to the bent and gray woman standing nearby with glittering eyes, "are you the witch called Rula?"
"I am," Rula gravely replied, "and you can tell your friend the elephant to keep his surprises to himself!" With a speed belying her wizened appearance, the witch suddenly gestured, and where she pointed could now be seen the uncomfortable visage of Billy, the Elephant of Surprise, unexpectedly exposed mid-stride. To add injury to this insult, there subsequently appeared the tapping of a rather large and lethal-looking length of timber so arrayed with straw at one end as to perhaps be mistaken at first glance for a broom. Which it was. But it looked more like a club. Suddenly it rose up and let loose a couple of resounding whacks on the elephant's gargantuan noggin, then sped off as if of its own volition toward the witch's waiting hand.
"Good girl, Wisky!" Rula said to her broom. "It's good when Wisky decides to do things like that on her own. Saves me the bother. Every time a witch performs a spell, a tiny bit of her ages faster. This is why most witches look so old." She fixed a glittering glance on Celia in a manner which dared for Celia to say otherwise. "Don't try flattering me, either. I do look old. Most of us try to conduct our lives as healthfully as possible with natural remedies and arcane knowledge. That we look as old and bent as we do, my dear, speaks to how very long we've lived indeed, only sometimes using the magic, yet always paying the price."
Rula surveyed her visitors with an attitude of private appraisal, as though she considered secret options. Celia stayed rooted to her spot. Billy, too, stayed where he had been discovered.
"Me thought ye were supposed to be friends with her," Hobnob said, having drawn up near Billy.
"I never said we were friends," Billy whispered. "I said she used to go to the castle of Umades. That broom though, it never did like me."
"Actually, Wisky can't stand you," Rula said, "and there's nothing extraordinary about that. It's as it should be, for here I am talking to you, and no regular witch traffics with regular people. We witches are generally extraordinary people who have seen too much and know too much. You regular people are often so disgusting to us, so shallow, weak, and predictable. This is why witches prefer to live in hollow trees and caves rather than in the company of you people. No offense."
"Or in your case..." Celia's gesture indicated Rula's cottage.
"Yes, or in my case a giant's skull." Rula chuckled. "It's true. Belonged to a giant named Deege. It was during the Siege of Deege when I took it. Come in, Celia. Yes, I know your name. I know about the door under your bed. And I know all about those steep winding stairs!"
Inside Rula's skull-house was a tree which grew in the center of the single room. A hole at the base of the tree formed a hearth. From the small fire already going, smoke rose up the hollow trunk which extended through a hole in the skull to the thatch-covered roof. Over the fire a cauldron bubbled gray sludge. Rula asked her guests if anyone wanted soup. Everyone declined. Shrugging her bony old shoulders, Rula said, "Suit yourselves," then went to the cupboard and pulled down a can of chowder...
CELIA is the flagship of KIDDISH TALES, which I'll eventually put into print unless somebody makes me a great offer, and will also include THE ADVENTURES OF SQUIRREL GIRL and POGO-KID, plus probably a couple of others.