“And you’ll not come back in until you STOP TELLING LIES!”
The door slammed, and Persimmon was left alone in the cold. This was a pity, for it was starting to drizzle, and she already had a cold. And she had already been feeling terrible all day, for it was full moon after harvest, and that reminded her of her father’s passing. As if she could ever forget her father’s passing.
“But I’m not lying,” she mumbled as she collapsed in a heap onto the stairs. “Wonderful sister, thank you,” she said, pulling her thin sweater around her as the autumn wind—which was quickly becoming winter wind—whipped around her. “The dreams aren’t lies. I know that.” She managed to say this with a conviction of utter confidence while also feeling terribly sorry for herself. Feeling sorry for ourselves helps us feel better, of course…for a little while. But alas, not for very long, and especially not when the drizzle turns into rain and the rain feels like daggers of sleet. Still, Persimmon knew better than to try to knock on the door. Raven was not…reasonable. Some would say she was crazy or, more generously, “singular in her eccentric stubbornness.” That’s what Persimmon’s dad had said about Raven, smiling and trying to speak well of his eldest daughter. “More like singular meanness,” Persimmon said aloud, throwing a stone against a fence post. But this story is not about Raven; it’s about her kinder, and currently shivering, sister.
To keep warm, Persimmon took to the road, where mud puddles were beginning to gather. And despite the cold, despite the rain, despite the utter misery of the day, she was soon making up games, which she could not help but do wherever she went. Her favorite invention today was floating leaves like boats along the streams of rain and pretending they were galleons, seeking their fortunes. She watched them sail or, as often as not, crash, as they skipped from puddle to puddle in the gathering current. This was rather silly of her, given that food and shelter and not freezing to death were higher priorities than merriment. But it only dawned on her rather late in the day, as she noticed her body shaking, that she must find some place to sleep. And the log in the woods was big enough for her to shimmy into, and still dry. And it would shelter her from the wind. And, well, it was as good a place as any. So that’s where Persimmon lay down to sleep. And that’s how it all began.
* * *
Actually, it had all started four months ago. That’s when Persimmon had gone to see the Prince. On that day, Persimmon had not been nervous; she had been utterly terrified. She kept bumbling over her words (though she was only talking to herself, practicing what she was going to say before his royal highness) and stumbling over her shoes. She walked along the road, cinching her coat more tightly around her, though it was not yet cold out.
Persimmon was not bad looking, but she had no idea how to present herself. On the day in question, she had slept on her hair rather oddly; it stood up in the back and was parted unevenly in the middle. But appearance mattered little to her. Her sole concern was convincing the Prince of the danger. And of her plan. After all, she had to convince him. If she failed…well, she couldn’t think about that. She simply had to succeed.
But fail she did. Royally, if you’ll pardon the pun. She sat in the prince’s antechamber for four hours, and when she was finally allowed in, she was told she had five minutes. Five! Five minutes in which to convince the prince of a grave threat about which she was certain but for which she had no proof? As she stood before him, his kind face looking down into her hers, his brown eyes dancing with amusement, it took her two minutes just to find her words, though she had rehearsed them for hours. By the time she had her wits about her, her audience was over. An attendant ushered her, rather unceremoniously, she thought, out of the Prince’s chamber and onto the street.
“Thank you, Tangerine,” the Prince had said, and the Prince’s waiting attendants laughed, though Persimmon rather thought that the Prince had genuinely forgotten her name. There was no malice in his tone. But what did it matter? It had taken her six months to get an audience, and three minutes to get kicked out. And that was that.
Her dreams had continued after that colossal failure and, in fact, grew all the clearer. The dreams that were also clear warnings kept pecking at her head like a crow, undeterred by her failure to get any one to believe her, be it her own flesh and blood—her only remaining flesh and blood–or the Prince of the realm.
* * *
The dreams always started the same, with Persimmon in some field or forest. The sky turned a dark color—usually a different color each time, but never blue. And then a storm broke open over the heavens. Each dream was then slightly different but always carried the same basic gist: soldiers pouring over the border of Hemsland and country folk and townspeople fleeing. Attacking and burning and pillaging. The landscape aflame. Persimmon always woke with a start, in a cold sweat, knowing that it was “just a dream” but unable to shake the conviction that it war far more. An omen. A foreseeing. And she always remembered the last thing she saw in the dream: A woman. A witch. An enchantress. She frothed in red anger, and she flung her arms around the field, directing her troops. The rage and hatred that poured from the woman’s eyes made Persimmon scream back to waking life. As Persimmon lay in the cold but dry log, she shuddered as she began to drift into sleep, afraid that the dream would come and find her even where she lay, shivering in the cold. That was the one thing that could make the night more miserable than it already was.
It turned out Persimmon did not have a chance to dream that night. She did not remember the log caving in and falling through. It was covered with leaves, so she would never know or remember if it was rotten or if there was some magic or Fate at play (which, given what happened later, might be the more reasonable explanation than mere rotted loggyness, strange to say). But she never remembered anything about it. What she did remember was hitting the ground with an incredible thud and yelling, “Ow, my noise!” Indeed, her nose–and not her “noise,” as she declared in a state of pain–was bleeding, which tends to happen when you fall twelve feet through open space and land not just a little on the full of your face. “Well, that’s marvelous, I’ve banged my noise.” (Reader, I don’t know why she said it a second time.) “And it’s one of my best features, dad always said,” she continued, “And Lord knows I haven’t got very many of them.”
Persimmon, you see, had a way of talking to herself when things went poorly. And when things went well, actually. Which is to say, “Persimmon had a way of talking to herself.” She was going on and on about her nose. “And when you haven’t got many very lovely features, you’ve got to care for what you do have. Course Father would say I’m lovely, but that’s just the kind of soul he was. Couldn’t see a bat without thinking there was something lovely in it. But I’m no Raven, not got any feature like those black tresses. Still, there are worse things than a nice nose. It’s not snubby at all. Least it wasn’t until today. I wonder if…”
“Well now, you’re being much too hard on yourself. You have nice ears, too.”
If it were possible for a person to jump out of their skin, Persimmon would have done so. She scampered to her feet and tried to disappear into the rock wall of wherever she was (A cave? A quarry?). Then she looked for the owner of the voice, but she could find no one to attach it to.
“Well now, I’m sorry, child, I didn’t mean to offend you. I meant it as a compliment. You really do have fine ears.”
“Who…what…who is that?” said Persimmon. “Are you a bandit? Are there bandits in here? You should know, I’ve no money and I’m skinny as a rail. Wouldn’t fetch any price as a slave and I’d be no good in stew.”
There passed a somewhat awkward moment of silence, and then the voice burst out in laughter. And went on laughing and laughing until Persimmon was quite perturbed. And then finally the voice said, “I’m not a CANNIBAL after all! But you’re right, I don’t think you’d taste very good. I’m down here. Look down, silly.”
Persimmon did, and…there he was. Whatever he was. Why, thought Persimmon scrunching up her noise—her nose—and squinting her eyes. Why he looks like…like…a squirrel?
“You are an enchanter!” she screamed. “You are a wizard, a..a…a warlock! My father told me of your sort, and…”
“Pish, child, I’m no wizard,” said the squirrel smartly and clearly a bit annoyed. But then he bent his head to the side and said, “But of course, I see. I forgot. You’re quite unaccustomed to talking squirrels. To squirrels talking, I mean.”
“Yes. I mean, no, I’m not. Not accustomed, I mean. Well, now I’m confused about what you asked,” said Persimmon, and for some reason she curtseyed and then blushed because she curtseyed.
“Well, aren’t you the dearest little…” said the squirrel, trailing off into a smile.
Persimmon could see that the squirrel was a kind soul, because he did not get flustered with her at all. Before she knew it, she and the squirrel were having a right good conversation that dawdled down all sorts of paths. And Persimmon soon forgot that she was talking to a squirrel.
“Yes, so they say the market on acorns will never recover,” the squirrel was saying just as Persimmon realized she needed to figure out where she was.
“Oh, that’s just dreadful.”
“Yes, it is. It’s a shame. Now, I can see you are realizing you need to figure out where you are. I believe I can help you.”
“Well, thank you, Mister…Mister…oh, I’m sorry,” said Persimmon, “I don’t believe I caught your name.”
“Yes, Mister Rodgers. Or you can call me Burt.”
“Yes,” said the squirrel, blinking at her and staring as if being a talking squirrel named Burt Rodgers was the sanest things in the world. “Now, I must take you to my friends. They’ll be able to explain things to you much better than I will. I can see you are confused.”
And so Mister Rodgers—Burt—led Persimmon down a long rock corridor which, after at least half an hour of walking, crawling, and scraping along, opened into a big rock chamber. In the middle of the huge stone room, a fire burned brightly and a number of animals—she couldn’t see what kind—were busy moving around it, apparently making some sort of stew. As soon as she came into the light of the flickering flames, a squirrel spotted her and shrieked. Before Mister Rodgers could say anything, the squirrel was yelling, “An intruder, an intruder! A thief! A malawark!”
“A malawark?” said Persimmon, but before she could protest and before Mister Rodgers could help her, the animals–which she now could see were not just squirrels but also rabbits and moles–had surrounded her and were making as if they would throw clods of dirt at her.
“How did you make it down here?” said a rabbit, scooping fistfuls of dirt and cocking his arm back.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Persimmon, honestly.
“Beat her! Yes, beat her head with nuts!” said a chorus of rabbits.
“No, you see, I tripped here. I mean I was sleeping. I mean…”
“What is your name?” cried a mole.
“Persimmon? Isn’t that a fruit?” said the mole, quizzically.
“Let’s call her ‘Apple,’ that’s much easier,” said a rabbit.
“No, let’s call her ‘Fig,’ for the conies,” said a squirrel.
“That’s not funny, that’s not funny!” said one of the rabbits. “We only ate them once and never again!”
“Once was enough,” said a squirrel, waving his paw as if to shoo away a smell.
Now all the animals were laughing, and it was all that Persimmon could do to be heard above their howling. “Please, my name is Persimmon!” she kept saying, to no avail.
“Stop, stop!” Mister Rodgers was yelling, and all at once all the animals seemed to hear him.
“Ah, Burt,” said one of the rabbits. “Where have you been? Is this malawark with you?”
“She’s not a malawark, Sigfried, she’s a human, clearly. And I do believe she’s the good sort.”
This seemed to satisfy all the animals, and Persimmon noted that Burt must be very respected. Immediately a swarm of animals rushed up to her and said things like, “Well, welcome!” and “That was just a bit of fun, wasn’t it?” and “We hardly ever actually throw the dirt” and “I still think you might be a malawark, but old Burt’s word is good enough for me.”
So it happened that, that very evening, Persimmon had her first taste of carrot and pea soup, over which she told all the animals—squirrels, rabbits, and moles—exactly who she was and where she came from. But she said nothing about her dreams, as she did not want them to think her a malawark. Whatever that was. When she had concluded her brief biography, Sigfried the rabbit, who was pulling out a pipe and stuffing it with a root of some sort, leaned back and sighed. “Fell through a rotten log. That’s a new one. Blimey me, I’ll be a split pea.”
“Now would you mind terribly,” asked Persimmon, “if I asked you…what I mean is, how is it that you can…talk?”
There was a titter of laughter, and one of the moles said, “Why don’t you tell her, Sigfried?”
Sigfried looked at Burt, who nodded. “Tell her,” he said.
“It all started with dreams,” said the rabbit.
Persimmon swallowed and clutched at her dress. “Dreams, did you say?”
“We all have them,” Sigfried nodded. “Long before we could talk, we started having them. When the dreams started, they were just jumbled and jangled images. Pictures without much meaning. Only over time did we begin to see them clearly. Then words started forming in our heads. Started forming in our heads like rainclouds form in the sky, slowly but right enough. Before we knew it, we had learned how to talk. It started with a few words, sure, but soon enough we were having proper conversations. And we started walking on twos instead of fours. And…we started getting bigger. You might have noticed already that we aren’t your average-sized forest creatures?”
“Yes,” continued Sigfried. “We’re not big big–not compared to you, for an example–but we’ve gotten bigger than ever we were. All of this, we think, came from the dreams.”
Burt stood up and started pacing, addressing Persimmon, “At first we just dreamed about what we knew. The moles would be dreaming about being underground and, I don’t know…whatever things moles dream about.”
“Finding a big nest of fat grubs!” said a mole.
“Right, exactly,” said Burt. “And the rabbits would dream of finding…”
“Carrots!” cried the rabbits.
“Right,” said Burt. “And we squirrels would dream of finding nuts or jumping from the limbs of great trees. All the dreams were different, is what I’m saying. But over time, they all started to become the same dream, about being in the same place, up above on the ground, on a great field surrounded by trees.”
“We could all describe it to you,” said Sigfried, and Persimmon could see that the moles and squirrels and rabbits were all nodding in tense agreement.
“And now,” continued Sigfried, “when they come, almost all of the dreams are that way. Animals on the field. Animals with swords and shields and arrows. Animals with a killing look in their eyes. And not just moles and rabbits and squirrels but big animals, too. Dogs and deer and bulls.”
There was a long pause and Burt broke in, “And the most chillingest thing—is that a word Persimmon?”
“Yes, I believe so,” said Persimmon.
“The most chillingest thing is…we’ve seen each other in the dreams.”
“What do you mean?” Persimmon asked.
“I mean,” said Burt, “That those animals in the dream…some of them are us. So we think…” Burt dropped his voice. “We think that’s what we’re becoming.”
The animals nodded in agreement, and even in the low light, Persimmon could see how terrified they were. Not a muscle stirred and the only movement in the room was the flickering of the fire.
“We are all there.” Sigfried agreed. “But we aren’t exactly…us. In the dream, we’ve changed. We have armor and shields and swords and…our eyes…”
“Yes?” said Persimmon. “Your eyes?”
“They’re…well, there’s not quite there. They’re darkened. They’re almost blackened. And there’s one thing that most of us always see in the dream. There’s a woman.”
“A witch!” cried a rabbit.
Sigfried nodded. “A witch, of some sort. Certainly an enchantress.”
Persimmon could feel her head growing light as if it were a leaf and about to be blown away. Before she could brace herself she had wobbled onto the ground and fallen on her bottom.
“Oh, Persimmon!” cried Burt. “You’ll bruise just like a fruit! What’s the matter?”
Persimmon lifted her head and looked Burt in the eyes. She shook her head and tried to clear her head. “I’ve seen her,” she whispered.
Burt cocked his head and Sigfried looked at Burt, confused.
“You’ve seen her?” said Burt, learning his nose forward. “What do you mean, you’ve seen her?”
“I mean,” said Persimmon, sighing and fully understanding the fear that permeated the chamber. “I mean that I’ve had that dream, too. I’ve seen her.”
It took a while for Persimmon to explain the sort of dreams that she had, for, though she had dreamed of soldiers, she did not realize that the soldiers were animals. She was always looking down at them from above, so she could only see the tops of helmets and armor. But she knew the woman well. The wrathful woman.
“What color is the armor?” asked Burt, once Persimmon had explained all.
“Red,” said Persimmon.
All the animals seemed to gasp at once.
“So it is in our dreams,” said Burt. “And what color is the woman’s dress?”
“White,” said Persimmon. “And her hair is gray and white.”
“Blimey me,” said Sigfried.
Persimmon stood. “There is only one thing to understand, though it does not make perfect sense to me, of course. There is an enchantress. A witch. Whatever you want to call her. And she is rousing an army. She’s making you her slaves. She’s using dreams to change you. And we must stop her. Before it’s too late. Before she turns your eyes…”
“Into darkness,” said Sigfried, solemnly.
“But how?” said Burt. “How is she changing us and how can we stop her?”
“I don’t know how,” said Persimmon, “but I do know that dreams are powerful, and somehow she has found a way to get inside them and to send them to you. We must find her and we must smash her power to send them.”
“But we have no idea where she is!” said a mole.
“And we haven’t the power to stop any enchantress,” said a rabbit, disheartened.
“I know,” nodded Persimmon. “But there is one who is strong enough. And we must get his help.”
“The Prince!” said Sigfried.
“Yes, the Prince,” said Persimmon. Then she sighed, remembering her last encounter with the Prince. “But that may be quite difficult.”
Siegfried stroked his beard carefully. “Yes, we must demonstrate—nay, prove to him, beyond any trace of doubt–the danger he is facing.”
“But you could just go to the Prince,” said Persimmon. “Surely if he sees talking animals, he’ll have to believe that some strong magic is at work and he’ll believe you.”
All the animals looked to Burt and Sigfried, waiting for their response.
“No, it will not work,” concluded Burt. “You know how all the townspeople are. They’re not as…inquisitive…as you are, dear Persimmon.”
“Sweet Persimmon, if you’ll pardon the pun” interjected Sigfried.
Burt laughed. “Yes, sweet Persimmon. The second they see talking animals, you see, they’ll shoot us dead. They’ll think it’s some wicked evil.”
“And I don’t blame them,” said Sigfried. “If we don’t do something soon, it will be wicked evil.”
“Not to mention,” continued Burt, “that those tower archers love any excuse to shoot an arrow. They’ll have us skewered before we get anywhere near the castle, and even if we made it past them, there’s the issue of getting into the castle.”
“I see what you mean,” said Persimmon, resting her head on her hand.
“Maybe,” said a shy mole, poking his head around Sigfried’s, “Maybe we should take her to see Benton?”
Sigfried looked at Burt and nodded his head. “That sounds like an excellent idea.”
“Better than doing nothing,” Burt agreed. “Maybe he can help us think of something.”
Before she knew it, Persimmon was almost literally carried off her feet by a swarm of whooping and hollering animals who led her down a dark tunnel. Then another tunnel. Then what seemed like up for a time and then down again and left and then back to the right for a long while. At last, she was dropped—not too gingerly, either—onto a dirt floor in a room lit only by faint torches. The room was even less well-lit than the tunnels and it took Persimmon’s eyes a long while to adjust. She could see that there was some object in the room. Some big object that she thought must be the stump and root system of a rather large tree. But she could not see the wizened mole nearly slumped over his cane, staring at her (as much as moles can stare with their tiny eyes) with curiosity.
“Aha!” the old mole yelled, opening his arms as if he were about to start a dance. “Dharjeeling!” he cried as Persimmon jumped in surprise, scrambling to her feet, trying to find the source of the disembodied voice echoing around the chamber. Oh, not again, she thought, remembering her experience with Burt hours ago.
“I just knew you’d come!” said the voice, excitedly.
“Why…you did?” asked Persimmon.
“Of course, I did,” said Benton the mole, who bounded forward and struck Persimmon on her kneecap.
“Ouch!” Persimmon cried, though Benton was laughing and bounding about and Persimmon could see that he did not mean to hurt her. And my, she thought, but he does move incredibly well for such a whiskered mole.
Sigfried bowed to the old mole and said, “Benton, this is Persimmon.”
“Persimmon, whu? Isn’t that a fruit?”
“Tish tosh, no matter. But she has come.”
“And how did you know that I would come, sir?” asked Persimmon respectfully.
“Well, they’ve told you about the dreams we’ve been having, ‘aven’t they?” asked Benton.
“Yes, they have.”
“I don’t really have an accent, I just like to drop my “h”es sometimes,” said Benton.
“Oh…okay,” said Persimmon.
Benton stared at her for a long moment until Persimmon felt that she must ask again, “And how did you know that I would come, sir?”
“Oh, yes,” said Benton. “Well, I saw you.”
“You saw me? Where did you see me?”
“In a dream, of course, silly. Where else? And I knew that you would come and that it would be important. So perhaps you can tell me why you’ve come?”
“Well, I…I’m not quite sure, you see,” said Persimmon, looking inquiringly to Burt and Sigfried. Burt stepped to Persimmon’s rescue and he and Sigfried explained everything to Benton for a great long while, until the old Mole nodded his head.
“I see, I see,” Benton nodded. “We must convince the Prince, that’s true enough.” There was a long silence before Benton cocked his head and said, “But she doesn’t know why she’s come. Doesn’t ‘ave a plan, is what I mean. Yes, that does make things more complicated. And why have you come to see me, then?”
“Well, we didn’t have any other ideas, Benton,” said Sigfried. “And maybe you could show her your bird? That way she can see just how smart the dreams have made you. Smarter than all of us, anyway. Maybe there’s something about the bird.”
“Bird?” asked Persimmon, looking around the room.
“Yes, bird,” nodded Benton. “My bird, to be exact. Well, what do you think of her, anyway?”
Persimmon had no idea what the mole was talking about, but Burt started twitching his head oddly to the side until Persimmon realized that he was pointing to the thing in the middle of the chamber—the stump and root. Except now she could see that it wasn’t a stump and root at all.
“Oh, yes, a bird, of course!” exclaimed Persimmon. And, indeed, she could now clearly see the body and the wings of a great creature that could only be, on closer inspection, a bird. She walked forward and touched it and saw that it was made of wood. A light wood. And that it was covered in a fine but strong cloth.
“But what does it do?” she asked, turning to Benton.
Benton turned to Burt and Sigfried, “She’s not exactly the…er…juiciest Persimmon on the tree, is she?”
Burt kicked Benton lightly on the shoe and said, “She’s quite smart, Benton, just remember how strange all this must be for her.”
Benton nodded and walked forward. “Well, it does what birds do, of course. It floats!”
“It floats?” asked Persimmon.
“Well, theoretically, yes. We’ve never actually tried it. Couldn’t figure out how to get her to the lake, you see.”
It was clear to Persimmon that somehow Benton did not realize that birds fly. Maybe moles cared so little for the skyward world that they didn’t take the time to learn about birds. In any event, she thought it best at that moment to refrain from pointing out that birds are known for flying much more than floating.
“And why did you build it?” she asked.
“Her,” Benton corrected politely.
“Excuse me. Her.”
“That, Persimmonee, I cannot tell you. I just had the ‘ankering one day to start building ‘er. Maybe I wanted to be one—a bird, I mean—when I saw them floating on the pond, and this is the closest I could get. As soon as the dreams gave me words, I started mashing rocks onto sticks and making tools out of them and, before I knew it, I was making her. And ‘ere she is.”
“It’s tremendous,” said Persimmon.
“Well, I thank you,” said Benton, quite pleased.
“But this is it!” said Persimmon, jumping into the air. Burt, Sigfried, and Benton were so startled by her sudden leap that they stumbled back and fell down, like a row of ten-pins.
“This is what?” asked Benton, rolling onto his back and then back onto his feet.
“Yes, this is what?” asked Burt and Sigfried together.
“Why,” said Persimmon. “Isn’t it clear? We must make her fly! Fly over the guards and all their arrows. Fly her right up to the Prince.”
“But,” said Benton, making a ‘not the brightest campfire in the camp’ face to Burt, “She doesn’t fly. She’s meant to float, like a bird. But right now she just sort of…sits.”
“Well, she has wings, right?” said Persimmon.
“Ay, good wings,” nodded Benton. “They even move up and down, see? You just move this lever here. Good for stirring up the water, I suppose.”
“And she’s strong, right?” said Persimmon.
“Ay, she’s good and strong.”
“Perfect,” said Persimmon. “Now leave the rest to me.”
Persimmon, you see, had been watching birds all of her life. And now that she saw what a bird this was, she had an idea. Whether or not it was a good idea—and whether it would work—she could never know without trying. Which made her plan quite daring. And quite dangerous.
* * *
“You see, my father used to make slingshots,” Persimmon was saying to Burt, Sigfried, and Benton, seven days later. “Raven would never use them—she’s too dainty, which is funny given how undainty she can be. But I always loved them. They’re not bad for hunting either. Good for shooting birds and squirrels and…er, what I mean is. Not that I actually ever shot a squirrel. Just theoretically, I mean, is all.”
“It’s okay, Persimmon” said Burt, patting Persimmon on her leg, “Who knows what squirrels would do to humans if we were twenty times your size.”
“Why, Burt,” said Persimmon. “You’re getting smarter all the time! You just did multiplications!”
“Which may be a good reason to get this bird in motion. The dreams are only getting stronger. Now show us what you have in mind, dear girl.”
“Simply this,” said Persimmon, pointing to the long rope of vines strung between long beams of wood, which she, with the help of many moles and many strong hares, had managed to make into a…well, no one knew what to call it, as no one had ever seen it before.
“It’s sort of a catapult,” said Persimmon.
“A cata-what?” asked Sigfried.
“A catapult. But also a sort of a bow and arrow, too.”
“Okay,” said Benton. “Whatever you say. But what does it do?”
“Oh, well that’s easy,” said Persimmon. “We put the bird in here, and I climb inside. Then the rabbits chop that rope over there, and when they do, the bird will be launched into the air.”
“Launched into the air?” asked Benton, his mouth dropping.
“Yes, like a duck.”
“Why on earth would you want to be launched into the air? What bird could stand flying through the air with nothing between it and the ground?” asked Benton.
“You’ll just have to trust me, Benton. This bird is meant for flying.”
“Well, I certainly did not make this marvelous creature for to kill a young girl, loopy as she may be.”
“No, you see, once I am launched into the sky, and once I start flapping the wings, I think I’ve got quite a good chance at landing within the castle grounds. And if I can do that, I can convince the Prince. I know I can. I’ll just have to find my words this time.”
Benton just blinked at her. Then at last, he said, “Well, you’ll have to make room for me.”
“And me, too,” said Burt.
“And me,” said Sigfried.
“Oh, no, I can’t let you dear ones risk yourselves. I’m bigger and I’ve got a better chance of making it safely,” said Persimmon.
“And supposing you do make it to the castle, what then?” asked Burt. “Don’t you think the Prince may not find it very amusing that a large duck has smashed into his castle?”
“He’ll probably think you’re an assassin!” cried Sigfried.
“Or an enchantress!” said Benton, pointing a knobby finger at Persimmon. “You’ll need some talking animals to convince the Prince that you’re not crazy. He’ll think you’re a right plumb, Persimmon!”
Persimmon had not thought of this, and of course, her friends were quite right.
“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” said Persimmon. “And of course, you’re quite right.”
“I’ll say you did not,” said Benton, shooting past her, opening the trap door to the duck (which coincided with the duck’s bottom) and sitting down squarely within the bird’s hull. There was a wide hole in the center and top of the duck—where the duck’s back was, between the two sets of wings—and soon Benton’s head popped out of the aperture.
“Well,” said the mole. “Let’s get on with it.”
Burt and Sigfried marched right past Persimmon and disappeared into the duck’s bottom and then their heads, too, popped up.
Persimmon breathed deeply, gathering her courage. Okay, she thought. This I can do. I can do this. She nodded and smiled to all the moles and squirrels and rabbits gathered about her. “Pray for us, my friends!” she cried, waving her hands in a royal arc, as she had once seen the queen do.
She did not expect all the animals to start cheering and hurrahing, but that is exactly what they did, and Persimmon blushed. And somehow she felt a courage rising in her.
When she was safely situated in the duck, she looked at Burt.
“Persimmon,” he asked. “Do my eyes look darker?”
“Truth be told, Burt, they do.”
Burt sighed and nodded. “Let us be on our way, then.”
It took a few moments for Benton to explain to Persimmon all the knobs and levers that controlled the angle of the duck’s tail feathers and neck. That adjusted the rate of the bird’s wings. That pulled the bird’s claws in and out. Then, once she was sure she understood, there was nothing to do but cut the string.
Persimmon nodded to a rabbit who was waiting, a large axe in hand. That is, in paw.
Benton laughed and shook his head. “Well, my dear, here comes the tricky part!”
“Yes, indeed,” said Persimmon.
She would always clearly remember the swing of the axe and the sound of the cord—the cord that held them safely in place–snapping away. Then the swift movement of the duck. Then everything becoming a blur. And everything becoming darkness.
* * *
When Persimmon came to, she was sailing through the air.
Beneath her, rivers and fields and streams and farms were speeding past, too quickly to track. But all she saw was blue: the blue sky above her, dotted with streaming clouds of white.
Then she became aware of a waterfall in her ears, and she realized the waterfall was actually Benton screaming, “What have I done? What have I done?” over and over again.
She steadied herself in the opening of the duck’s back and craned her neck out as far as she dared. Beneath her—far beneath her—a forest was passing by (rather, she was passing over it). She looked up to the horizon and shrieked. Whether it was a shriek of terror or joy, no one, not even herself, could be sure. She seemed to be higher than the mountains that were far in the distance, and suddenly, despite the wind in her ears—not to mention Benton’s screaming—everything became very still. Peaceful, even. And Persimmon smiled.
Then there was a jolt as Burt fell into her, and she realized that they were falling. Not falling straight down, but there was no doubt that the ground was getting closer. In the distance, straight ahead, she could see the Prince’s castle. It was a large sliver of white just beyond the river.
“We’ve got to stay in the air!” cried Persimmon above the wind.
“Flap its wings!” cried Sigfried, who tried to move the lever which controlled the duck’s wings. Nothing happened.
“No, we’ve got to tilt them! Just so!” said Persimmon. And she moved the lever, tipping the bird’s wings. But that did not help either, for the ground was getting closer and the bird’s head was starting to tilt dangerously forward. Persimmon could see that if they tilted much further, they might tip over all together and be sent falling in a heap towards the earth. She moved the lever back and forth, frantically.
“Try to breathe out all at once! Maybe that will lift us!” said Burt.
“No!” said Benton, “Jump up and down, maybe we can reduce our weight!”
“Ahhhhh!” cried Sigfried.
But suddenly, the bird righted itself. Persimmon had found the place of “just so,” and when she did, a big draft of air caught the bird’s wings and steadied her, and even seemed to lift the great creature higher. They started to fall again, but the fall seemed more like a peaceful floating.
“You did it, Persimmon!” cried Burt.
Persimmon realized there was little time to congratulate herself. The castle was still a long way off, and even if they reached it, they were moving awfully fast. If they did reach it, what if they crashed into one of its walls? What if they shot over it and hit the mountains?
But as there was little that they could do to master their fate, Persimmon just said, “Move the tail feathers a little that way, we’re a bit off. There, now that’s better.” Then she smiled, and she, Burt, Sigfried, and Benton all peered around the duck’s head and into the horizon.
The castle was approaching. The world beneath them became a blur. Everything was speeding up. Persimmon could see they would clear the great castle wall and maybe the second, smaller wall, but where they would land she could not tell.
Then all the world went dark, and Persimmon saw and heard not a thing.
* * *
How the Prince, with Persimmon’s help (not to mention Burt’s, Sigfried’s, and Benton’s) found the enchantress, and how he went to war to stop her, and how he was victorious: these are stories for another time.
What concerns us, rather, is a knock on the door. A knock on the door and a voice that said, “Me lady, it’s time.”
That was the voice telling Persimmon that it was time to stand, gather her breath, and smile. As she walked through the castle hallway and into the garden, arched by canopies of flowers, Persimmon’s white dress shown in the sunshine like the sun off a newly sailed canvas. And around her, a sea of admirers. Never had anyone stood for her, let alone an entire courtyard. But stand they all did: merchants and courtesans and royalty, from near and far. And, at the head of them, waiting for her, the Prince.
Later, after the ceremony, Persimmon—Princess Persimmon, I should say—stood on the castle balcony and waved to the thousands who had come to see her. Even Raven had come, and Persimmon saw her and waved excitedly while Raven lowered her head and curtseyed. Meanwhile the Prince whispered into her ear.
“It’s a good thing you woke up—and spoke up–when you did.”
He had said this many times before, and Persimmon knew exactly what he meant.
“Yes, I’ll never forget all your archers, pointing their arrows at me.”
“They almost skewered you! You don’t look like much of an assassin, but one would hardly have blamed them.”
“Yes, and it’s a good thing you recognized me!”
“Recognize you?” asked the Prince, incredulous. “How could I not? You have the cutest nose I’ve ever seen, dear Tangerine. I do think it’s slightly flatter than it was, but still the cutest in the realm, there’s no doubt of it. Not to mention those ears!”
“And I’ve figured out now why you were able to see those dreams,” continued the Prince.
“You have?” asked Persimmon, turning to her husband. “Well, you’ve reasoned it out before I have.”
“Oh, yes, it’s easy to see. It’s because you’re kind, Persimmon. Kind-hearted like all of your little friends.”
Persimmon blushed again and looked out over the crowds below. “Maybe someday we’ll be able to tell all the people about them.”
“Yes, maybe,” said the Prince. “For now, it’s enough that they have you.”
And now Persimmon’s hair did not stick up in the back, nor was it parted unevenly in the middle. She looked positively radiant. And royal. Which was good, because that’s what she was: the Royal Princess Persimmon. Beloved of her people all the days of her good, long life.